Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: GENTLEMAN'S FATE (1931)

The first of Louis Wolheim's two posthumous releases is actually the last movie he performed in. Gentleman's Fate opened in March 1931, little more than a month after Wolheim's death and about a month before the release of The Sin Ship. Wolheim joined the production after Charles Bickford refused the role and was fired by M-G-M. Bickford presumably didn't want to play second banana to John Gilbert, the gentleman of the film's title. While the title suggests an archetypal Gilbert vehicle, this is in fact one of Metro's early attempts at a talkie gangster film, directed by no less than Mervyn LeRoy, the man who had just revolutionized genre at Warner Bros. with Little Caesar. It was heavily promoted as a comeback film for Gilbert, whose first talkies had been high-profile bombs. One exhibitor unflatteringly pitched the picture as Gilbert's "first virile role," but you get the point. Many reviewers were impressed, though a few stuck by their reservations about Gilbert's weak voice and overly mannered acting. It was neither the first nor the last time that M-G-M promised moviegoers a "new" Gilbert, suggesting less the sabotage of Hollywood legend than an ongoing but maddeningly unsuccessful salvage job by the studio. As I noted in my last look at Gilbert, Gentleman's Fate and his follow-up, The Phantom of Paris, seemed for a moment to have turned the tide, but he followed those with the disastrous West of Broadway, and from that point his fate was probably irreversible.

There's an element of forbidden, fatal fantasy to Gentleman's Fate as LeRoy invites us to imagine what we'd do if we suddenly became gangsters, but closes with the warning that we'd probably die. Gilbert plays the fish out of water, ambitious orphan socialite Jack Thomas who lives off a trust fund of origins he couldn't care less about. Jack gets a shock when his guardian summons him to a revelation: "You have a father." It takes a while for it to sink in that, contrary to his belief, Jack has a living father, though he won't be living much longer. The old man's dying in a Jersey City hotel with a bullet in his chest. A hunting accident? Jack asks. No, he was the one being hunted.

At the hotel, Jack meets his natural brother, Frank Tomasulo (Wolheim) -- "he's a bit older than you are," the guardian warned -- before seeing the father he never knew. Turns out that the Tomasulos are bootleggers, but that the old man entrusted Jack to a friend so he could grow up innocent of the family business. But Frank believes that Jack -- Giacamo, really -- owes it to the family to pitch in during the crisis. Jack wants no part of it, but Frank can be very convincing. Like a superhero in reverse, Jack tries to keep his new life secret from his fiancee (Leila Hyams), but you know how things happen in the movies. Soon Jack has to pay his dues by taking the rap for a minor offense. He takes his anger out on Frank in a nicely staged fight scene -- Gilbert and Wolheim take turns charging at the camera and throwing punches as LeRoy cuts from one punching to the other reeling across the room -- but when he learns that his fiancee has left him he calms down and accepts his lot, at least for the moment. He still plans to get out of the business eventually and win the girl back.

Jack has to flee to Canada after killing a gunman for a rival outfit during a border hijacking, taking over the distribution of contraband booze for his brother. When he returns to New Jersey he still wants out, hoping he can still get his girl, but Frank shows him a newspaper society page announcing her wedding to another man. The news gets Jack started on a bender in which art anticipates life. Meanwhile, Frank has arranged a "peace banquet" to end the rivalry with the Florio mob, while Florio himself (John Miljan) suspects Jack of killing his brother and wants revenge. When Jack, on the rebound, falls for the brother's former moll Ruth (Anita Page), whom Florio wanted to act as a spy on the Tomasulos, Florio feels doubly wronged. The peace banquet is tensely comic as the gangsters and their molls -- the ladies are packing for their men because they won't be searched -- show their bad table manners in a parody of civility. The illusion dissipates when a drunken Florio insults Jack and Ruth and Jack -- who retained his table manners to this point -- socks him. LeRoy cuts to a brilliant shot of the molls passing their rods back to their men under the table, but a detail of police shows up before open warfare can break out and Frank manages to defuse the situation, for the moment.

Florio still wants revenge on Jack and takes advantage of an obvious Tomasulo plant in his ranks to spread misinformation and catch the enemy off guard. He announces his time of attack in earshot of the stool pigeon, who promptly marches upstairs to a phone booth to warn the Tomasulos. Once the fool blabs as Florio wanted him to, Florio shoots him in the back through the glass of the booth without leaving his seat, and the gang watches casually as the corpse tumbles backward down the stairs. The climax is well-staged for suspense and action as Ruth walks into the trap, but her girlfriend sees a rival moll finger her for Florio and runs to Tomasulo headquarters for help, while Frank blithely walks into the trap without warning. Ruth can defend herself, it turns out, and shoots Florio in the back. Jack finishes him with a shot through a fire-escape window before he can shoot Ruth, but not before Florio inflicts a mortal wound on our hero. The finish is sadly corny as Frank promises on Jack's deathbed to get out of the rackets (see also Paddy Ryan in The Public Enemy later in 1931) and Jack announces, "I'm getting out ... right now."

It may be because Jack, despite his ethnicity, is not an "authentic" gangster that Gentleman's Fate lacks the visceral vitality of Public Enemy or LeRoy's Little Caesar, despite several effective action scenes. This isn't a rise-and-fall story but an improbably fantasy of a man improbably inheriting a dangerous throne. The fish-out-of-water situation gives us considerable leeway to forgive Gilbert's limitations, but the fact remains that his voice lacks personality, much less power or authority. For a moment in the later Phantom of Paris he'd find the right kind of charismatic arrogance in a role to fit his voice, but as a tragic antihero here he still sounds too often like a bank clerk. He's at his best in his scenes with Wolheim, who had the great character actors' gift for elevating his interlocutors, when the contrast of voices and personalities is the point of the action. Wolheim's increasingly sympathetic gangster ultimately seems like a gangland version of his wise old soldier from All Quiet on the Western Front, which may have won him this part after Bickford bailed on it. He's no more an Edward G. Robinson than Gilbert is a Cagney, and Gentleman's Fate feels like a relic of the oldschool crook film that LeRoy had just made obsolete. He was obviously an important piece of the success of the Warner Bros. gangster film, but not really the right one to choose if another studio wanted to imitate it. The presence of the ghostly Wolheim and the doomed Gilbert only makes the film look more like a dead end in the history of gangster films, but it has enough energetic Pre-Code action to keep it interesting if not entirely entertaining.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: Louis Wolheim in DANGER LIGHTS (1930) and THE SIN SHIP (1931)

By the time veteran character actor Louis Wolheim earned cinematic immortality as the wise old German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front he was probably a dead man walking already. He succumbed to stomach cancer on February 18, 1931, two months before RKO released The Sin Ship, though some exhibitors brought back Danger Lights, an August 1930 release, and billed it as his last. We last saw Wolheim in a Lon Chaney reject, The Ship From Shanghai, from earlier in 1930, and he never quite escaped Chaney's shadow despite never aspiring to more than one ugly face. Reviewers of Danger Lights noted a similarity to Chaney's Thunder, his last silent picture. Both are train stories of a once-popular genre -- the publishers of Argosy also put out a monthly Railroad Stories for many years. Director George B. Seitz helps us understand the genre's popularity. Filming mostly on location in railyards and with extensive second-unit filming of trains racing across the country, Seitz made a high-tech spectacle that was exhibited in some markets in an early widescreen process. Danger Lights is a relic of a time when the equivalent of fighting robots was staging a "tug of war" between two locomotives, the engines going head to head in brute battles for supremacy, whistles blasting, steam billowing.

Wolheim's hero, the railyard boss Dan Thorn, is a kind of benevolent monster himself. Only such a creature could turn Robert "Carl Denham" Armstrong into a romantic hero by default. Thorn is courting Mary Ryan (Jean Arthur is twenty years Wolheims junior and seems younger still) who unsurprisingly finds herself drawn to the younger, relatively handsome Larry Doyle (Armstrong), who arrives as a hobo and proves to have been an ace engineer who'd been fired for insubordination. He proves his potential initially by putting up a fight when Thorn chases a gang of hoboes from a freight car; Thorn is the stronger man and Doyle is half-starved, but the younger man gets up from two Wolheim haymakers before finally going down for the count, impressing Thorn with his pluck.

Thorn soon arranges to have Doyle reinstated as an engineer, not realizing that the one thing really keeping Larry on the job is the nearness of Mary. Dan Thorn is a helpful busybody, invading a speakeasy to prevent a veteran engineer from starting on a bender after his wife dies. There's something selfless about him that makes the film's ending predictable, but Dan first must go through a fit of jealousy when he discovers Larry and Mary's betrayal on the night he announced his engagement. Dan is in a killing mood as he stalks up the track in a driving rain -- experienced pre-Code viewers will be reminded of another rail picture of the same year, William Wellman's Other Men's Women -- and fate hands him a neat package when Larry gets his foot caught in a suddenly shifted rail tie. But when the big train comes bearing down, big-hearted Dan can't just watch a man die. He wrenches Larry free and tosses him off the track, only to take a direct hit from the train in a brutal-looking special effect. Miraculously, he isn't instantly killed, but the doctor says he will die unless he can have a highly-specialized brain operation in the next five hours. Cue the climax as Larry takes an express train on a record run to Chicago to deliver dan to the specialist. Larry has redeemed himself, which means it's pathos-of-renunciation time for Dan, who realizes that his real love was the railroad all along. The film teases a full-pathos finish as Dan seems to expire despite everyone's efforts, but a random comment from outside that the old man had gone soft brings him back from beyond with a vengeance for a comic coda.

Even in 1930 reviewers found much of this hokey, but today Danger Lights remains a spectacular looking early talkie. John W. Boyle and Karl Struss team up for forceful black-and-white cinematography and the reality of most of the train action may be more impressive now than it was back then, when trains may have been taken for granted. The most obvious fake moments are the comic-relief bits featuring Hugh Herbert as a loquacious hobo who ends up stowing away for the record run to Chicago, hanging on for dear life all the way. Herbert was actually a co-director on this shoot, receiving credit as "dialogue director" and doing creditable work in that capacity. It's interesting to see him grubbier than the fey "woo-woo" persona he developed as a Warner Bros. contract player, and RKO must have liked the byplay of Herbert and Wolheim, since Herbert was promoted to full sidekick for Sin Ship, with Wolheim sharing in the direction this time, Lynn Shores assisting as "pictorial director." This later film contributes to the confusion between Herbert and his homonymous doppelganger F. Hugh Herbert, who co-wrote it as he would several of just plain Hugh's Warner Bros. pictures. But it's most interesting to see Wolheim as Sin Ship's ultimate auteur, taking charge of his career at the very end and giving himself a happy ending for once.

To some extent Sin Ship feels like a do-over of Ship From Shanghai, at least insofar as it revives the image of Wolheim as a brute on board a boat. This time he's the captain, Sam McVey, with Herbert as his first mate, but like the megalomaniacal steward of Shanghai, the Wolheim character longs for the sincere love of a woman, though mere sex would do, too. He tries to impose himself on his new female passenger (Mary Astor), despite her being the wife of a missionary (Ian Keith). She stands her ground and chews him out -- and he feels legitimately crestfallen and ashamed of himself. He resolves immediately to turn a new leaf, to the dismay of his oft-drunken mate, while Mrs. Missionary reports her encounter to hubby with a lot of laughter after lighting a cigarette. She remarks that the captain "pulled a Hairy Ape act" -- an in-joke for those who knew that Wolheim had created the title role of Eugene O'Neill's play of that name nearly a decade before. Keith and Astor are not what they pretend to be, but are a bank robber and his moll on the run from the law. As a contrite captain prepares for his return trip to the States, the crooks grow concerned that he'll be questioned about his passengers and lead investigators right to them. To prevent that, or delay it until they can make plans to move on, Keith sabotages the ship's engine and urges Astor, who has just received a painfully-drafted letter from McVey begging forgiveness ("You was right. I was an animal"), to seduce the broken-nosed sea dog.

According to Sin Ship's romantic dialectic, Astor's fake moralism has inspired Wolheim to reform sincerely, wearing a clean white uniform and enforcing stricter discipline on his crew, e.g. no card-playing on Sunday. In turn, his sincere effort to be a better person gradually melts Astor's hard heart. She begins to feel guilty about deceiving him and begins to respond in unexpected ways to his surprisingly naive appreciation of the higher things in life. Soon she wants to quit the imposture, while Keith, who feels invincible after passing the generic fake-preacher-must-give-a-sermon test ("I cracked a sermon like I'd crack a safe!") begins to grow jealous. He forces her to stay away from a dinner party the captain holds for them, while he sits at home drinking heavily. Inevitably the mask falls, and for a moment the movie teases that the captain in his vengeful rage might rape the Astor character. But the helpful appearance of a police detective resolves things more neatly than anyone might have expected and sets up the still-less expected happy ending.

As a director, Wolheim is at least a better director of himself than Charles Brabin was for him in Ship From Shanghai. His and Shores's combined effort is effective without being showy, and with cinematographer Nick Musaraca they often work out intersting framing for dialogue and stark contrasts of light and shadow. While the ending definitely seems too good to be true, Wolheim is made likable enough to deserve it-- though he becomes a moralist he never turns martinet. The Wolheim-Herbert comic team clicks as RKO hoped, the letter-drafting scene being a highlight of the picture as the two crude men struggle to produce a civilized epistle. As a posthumous picture some unintended pathos hangs over Sin Ship, but it works in the film's favor. It seems right that someone so typed as a thug should get the girl at the end of his career. It reinforces the feeling that after All Quiet, Wolheim went out a winner.

Friday, March 28, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

Wes Anderson conspicuously ends his new film with a dedication to the author Stefan Zweig, leaving most in his audience to wonder who Zweig was. Did he write farce comedies? Comic strips? Did he perhaps draw those as well? Technically speaking, Zweig was a pulp author, though it must be noted that Blue Book was probably the most high-toned of pulps and Zweig's contributions were excerpts from already-published non-fiction books. But no -- although the bemused spectator might imagine Zweig kin to Rube Goldberg or Frederick Burr Opper, the kinship is probably all Anderson's. I won't question his sincerity in claiming Zweig, a star author of the period in which the film is set, as his primary inspiration, but everything else about the picture screams early 20th century comic strips and movie comedies. As an homage to these things, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an admirable labor of a love that may not dare speak its name, but Anderson's invocation of Zweig points to bigger ambitions, or at least so I assume, that the film doesn't really fulfill.

To wrap everything up neatly and quickly, the film aspires to pathos -- Zweig himself seems to have been a figure of pathos, at least at the self-willed end of his life -- but achieves it only intermittently. That's because, at 99 minutes and plenty of plot, the movie moves at a breakneck pace that leaves little time for the romantic mood Anderson presumably meant to create to sink in, or for us to appreciate what exactly is lost between the time of the story and the time of the framing devices that we should regret. The love story between Zero the lobby boy (Tony Revolori) -- in proper comic-strip manner this vaguely Keatonesque figure has "Lobby Boy" inscribed on his hat, in keeping with the movie's almost Tarantinian degree of labeling and chaptering  -- and Agatha the pastry chef (Saoirse Ronan) is mostly observed on the fly, and the main story of the picture isn't Zero's courting and winning of the pretty girl with the Gorbachevian birthmark -- a map of Mexico across her right cheek -- but the fight of his mentor, the Grand Budapest concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), to claim a painting left to him by one of his elderly lovers while clearing himself of her murder. It's one big chase pitting our heroes against cartoonishly hateful villains -- Adrien Brody's fascistic boor and Willem Dafoe as Brody's skull-knuckled goon -- and punctuated with slapstick of a violence more consistent with comic strips that silent movies. Anderson's miniaturization of modern action-movie moments to toylike effects, as in the big ski-slope chase scene, reinforces the overall comic-strip aesthetic with an audacity that's thrilling in its own way while suggesting that such moments are trivial compared to the scenes where the director really spends money.

Within those parameters, the cast is uniformly excellent and sensually speaking the film is superlative. Alexandre Desplat's score is the best work I've heard from a composer I consider overrated, while Robert Yeoman's cinematography is up to the high standard of Anderson pictures. I probably wouldn't feel disappointed about the film at all if Anderson himself didn't insist that there was something more to it that I didn't really see, not just with his dedication to Zweig but with the whole framing device establishing the story's basis in a novel whose author is revered as a national hero in his homeland. The film is nestled like a Russian doll in generations of layers: a young woman of today pays homage with a hotel key at a monument to the author, whom we see in 1985 dictating the novel, in which a fictional writer of 1968 (Jude Law) meets the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him the story of the film, set in 1932. The end of Abraham's narrative brings the film's most successful moment of pathos, intended presumably to ripple across the generations until we return to the girl at the monument. As Zero explains what he's gained and lost since his story ended, the camera pulls back to reveal the mostly empty, moribund hotel that was so opulent and lively in his youth. Amid all the frantic virtuosity of Anderson's direction, that simple camera movement sums everything up quite nicely, but many viewers may lose the moment in the overall clamor of the comedy. In any event, we're supposed to believe that the author became an idol to his people primarily for writing this story. I don't buy it, and maybe Anderson doesn't mean us to buy it. But if he did, then while The Grand Budapest Hotel is highly entertaining it's also a failure on some level -- and I suppose there's something sad about that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, March 25, 1939

INTRODUCTION: What is the Argosy?

ARGOSY was one of the "big four" pulp magazines of the medium's heyday. Today, if anyone imagines a big four of pulp, you'd probably see Black Mask (home of hardboiled detective fiction), Weird Tales (home of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos), The Shadow and Doc Savage on the list. Those are the pulps remembered today -- the ones from which stories are still reprinted. But 75 years ago the big four were, in ascending frequency of publication, the monthlies Adventure and Blue Book, the biweekly Short Stories and the weekly Argosy. All four were general fiction magazines covering a variety of genres, and of the four Argosy was probably the most diverse, publishing science fiction and fantasy under the catch-all label "fantastics." In 1939 a typical issue had chapters of three serials, one or two complete novelettes and several short stories. Argosy was published by the Munsey company, half of a weekly one-two punch along with Detective Fiction Weekly. By 1939 Munsey was in some sort of trouble. The company had embarked on an ill-fated brand expansion to compete with the larger pulp lines. Argosy paid the price by shrinking from 144 to 128 pages in 1938; it would shrink again to 112 pages in 1940. Even so, the idea of 128 pages of pure storytelling every week -- Argosy had fewer illustrations than many pulps -- is pretty amazing. The pulps flourished at a time when there were few alternatives for readers hungry for narrative. By 1939 they had the classic adventure strips, radio dramas, and the new medium of comic books, Action Comics having premiered Superman the year before. The pulp audience was splitting into demographic fragments, most of the younger readers turning to comics while an older remaining market forced the evolution of pulps into the "men's adventure" or "sweat" magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Argosy itself was mostly spared that fate. It became a "slick" monthly after Popular Publications bought the title in 1943 and endured well into the 1970s. By the end, however, it had largely if not entirely given up fiction, or at least overt fiction, in favor of "In Search Of" type material about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, etc.

This Week's Issue

Back in 1939, however, Argosy was probably still seen as one of the dominant pulps, if not the mightiest of all. It certainly boasted of its connections to Hollywood, trumpeting the debut in this issue of its second serial featuring Max Brand's Dr. Kildare. I'm not sure of the exact relation between the Kildare serials and the M-G-M film series -- whether the movies are adaptations of the stories or the serials are novelizations of the screen stories. "Max Brand" was a name identified with westerns -- the man born Frederick Faust also wrote Destry Rides Again and near-countless others -- and while the author used different pseudonyms for different genres, e.g. George Challis for historical swashbucklers, everyone involved wanted the big name for the Kildare series. I haven't watched any of the movies, or any of the 1960s TV shows, so all I know about Jimmy Kildare is what I've read here.

Kildare is the son of a doctor and the protege of the irascible yet brilliant Dr. Gillespie -- you can hear Lionel Barrymore's voice in Brand's dialogue and it may have been meant that way from the start. The running subplot of the series, at least as of this second story, is that Gillespie is in a race against time to transmit his vast knowledge to Kildare before he succumbs, supposedly in a year, to an incurable disease. At the same time, Gillespie doesn't want Kildare to become a mere medical machine. He worries that Jimmy has grown cold and insensitive toward patients and may lack the human touch that's sometimes crucial to a cure. "Calling Dr. Kildare" seems designed to open Jimmy's heart by exposing him to dramatic medical crises. The highlight of this week's opening chapter is the clandestine meatball surgery our hero performs to extract a bullet from a wounded young Irish gangster. Medical drama hardly matches anyone's idea of pulp fiction, but Brand is an old hand at making situations suspenseful. The interplay between Kildare and Gillespie comes across as corny but the surgery scene does capture your attention and gets you interested in the fate of the gangster and his young friends and in whether Kildare is compromised by helping them.

The Kildare serial is one of two movie tie-ins in this Argosy. This week's issue also concludes "Fast and Loose" by Marco Page, also known as Harry Kurnitz. This is a sequel to the previous year's "Fast Company," which like "Young Dr. Kildare" became an M-G-M picture. The studio made three pictures about the mystery-solving bookseller Joel Sloane and his wife Garda, a poor man's Nick and Nora, with three different couples in the roles. I've just summed up "Fast and Loose" to may satisfaction. It's generic semi-screwball detective work with snappy patter between husband and wife and none of the intensity Brand brings to the Kildare story. Why it's in Argosy and not Detective Fiction Weekly is a mystery unto itself.

Don't let anyone tell you that reviewing 75 year old pulps is irrelevant to today's world. My answer to that claim would be Frederick C. Painton's novelet "A Package for Paris," featuring his series character, the globetrotting insurance investigator Dan Harden. In this adventure, Harden is asked to facilitate the sale of an expensive piece of jewelry to help finance a fascist coup d'etat in Ukraine, then a republic in the Soviet Union. Who could imagine such a thing? But as it turns out, Harden has stumbled into a spy ring smuggling military blueprints to Germany, which makes it unlikely that he'll get to the hospital in time to see his first child born. I've read better Harden stories but Painton is a consistently good writer who keeps this yarn punchy and entertaining. For what it's worth, both he and Brand/Faust would die as war correspondents during World War II, Faust taking a bullet in Italy while Painton had a heart attack shortly after covering Iwo Jima.

We haven't yet gotten to the actual cover story for this week. Uncredited on the cover, the author is David V. Reed, whose career lasted at least into the late 1970s in the comics. "Secret of the Silent Drum" is perhaps the most "pulp" of this issue's stories. It's told in an old-fashioned indirect style, with an initial narrator telling of his meeting with someone who narrates the actual story. Maybe in the past they thought it necessary to establish some distance between the reader and a story that might prove too shocking in its immediacy. In any event, the real narrator explains the mystery of a photo that shows himself, a Haitian guide and a drum, but identifies three men in the picture. It's the story of an obsessive treasure hunt in which the guide, a faithful retainer and more articulate than black characters often were in pulps, emerges as the nearest thing to the tale's hero. The gruesome explanation of the mystery may not surprise many readers, but Reed adds an extra ironic twist that adds sadness to the horror. These are the guide's words:

'You know, Mait' Constant, I never saw that map so closely until today. I tried to tell him. He refused to listen. And when I persisted, after a time I realized the horror of what he was thinking: that I wanted it. He trusted no one, not even me -- and after all, my skin is black.' The small, crystal tears sped down his face. 'So I never spoke of it again, never again asked him to let me examine it closely. Then, I might have told him as a certainty that I had seen its counterpart twice before. I might have told him that it was worthless...'

In this issue's other serial Arthur Leo Zagat, one of Argosy's specialists in 'fantastics,' continues the serial "Seven Out of Time," in which a detective hired to track an heiress joins her as captive to monstrous super-intelligent beings claiming to hail from Earth's far future. Famous people who had supposedly disappeared without trace throughout history are captives as well; the hero met the poet Francois Villon (hero of the recent film If I Were King) in an earlier chapter, and in this one he meets King Arthur. Neither he nor the author are much impressed, "Can't you see he's nothing but a big baby and has to be humored?" the heroine tells the hero after one frustrating episode with the imperious Pendragon. Such irreverent touches enliven the story, even though the fantastics aren't that big an attraction for me.


Rounding out this week: Luke Short, once groomed as Max Brand's successor to the western throne, contributes a short story, "Indian Scare," in which the hero tries in vain to dissuade settlers from occupying territory disputed by Apaches and renegade "rawhiders." It may be the most hard-boiled piece in the issue, but it closes on a romantic note. Arden X. Pangborn -- his real name, as far as I know -- offers "The Curse of K'ang," featuring his series character Wong Sun, a Chinatown jeweler. Wong Sun is a walking stereotype, talking almost entirely in Charlie Chan-style proverbs (e.g. "A man does not win races sitting down...Likewise a man who seeks fish does not go to a dry lake."). Still, if this story is any indication readers were meant to root for Wong as an underdog turning the tables on bullies and oppressors, while the white cop in his neighborhood is portrayed as an idiot. In this one, Wong exploits the superstitious bigotry of a crooked white realtor, convincing him that he's fallen under a curse until he repays the laundryman he'd ripped off. Finally, Alexander Key, best known as the author of the Witch Mountain books, gives us the nautical comedy, "Luck on the Ladybird," in which a character takes advantage of his reputation as a jinx or Jonah to blackmail a ship's captain into paying off an old debt. If Reed and arguably even Pangborn give us positive ethnic characters, Key doesn't even bother giving his black sailor a name, referring to him consistently as "the darkest" and giving him a cartoon dialect. That's the risk you run with pulps, but the story is amusing and no one, really, is portrayed in a positive way.

Each Argosy also includes a one-page cartoon feature, W. A. Windas's "Legends of the Legionaries," and Stookie Allen's two-page "Men of Daring" spread, which sometimes becomes "Women of Daring." There's also a letter column, "Argonotes," of varying length, this week featuring one writer's recollection of H. P. Lovecraft as a leading letterhack -- noting also that Lovecraft never placed his own stories in Argosy. In our busy day it may seem hard to believe that someone could read through it all, even at its reduced size, in time to be ready for the next week's issue. But it was a heroic age, of a sort, and the writers who could meet the demand and remain entertaining --even today -- were heroes of a sort themselves. We'll meet more of them in the coming weeks, in Argosy and elsewhere, if you'll follow me into a world more obscure even than the wild world of cinema. Few alive today have looked upon these artifacts, but like much of cult cinema, they are often trash and treasure at once. Watch and learn.


Sunday, March 23, 2014


After getting Lee Marvin out of his system, and his greatest popular success with Deliverance, John Boorman picked up a screenplay originally planned for Peter Sellers under Joseph Losey's direction and rewrote it for Marcello Mastroianni, who had impressed him most in Mario Monicelli's The Organizer. I can see a little of Organizer in Leo the Last, but the film looks most like the bastard child of Rear Window and A King in New York. Leo (Mastroianni) is an exiled prince or pretender to the throne of some European country, just arrived in London and ensconced in a mansion at the end of a cul-de-sac in a slum neighborhood. Leo seems to have been, and largely remains, little more than a figurehead for his hangers-on who still dream of reclaiming their country. He seems like he could not care less -- aloof to the point that he's thought ill, both physically and mentally, and increasingly alienated from his privileged milieu. With a telescope once meant for birdwatching he becomes a kind of voyeur, watching the working-class street life in his new neighborhood and paying particular attention to a family of African immigrants and their friend Roscoe (Calvin Lockhart), a kind of local Robin Hood. When Roscoe is arrested, Leo feels obliged to look after the family of Roscoe's girlfriend Salambo (Glenna Foster-Jones) and keep her from becoming a prostitute. Politicized at last, he wants to become a benefactor to the entire neighborhood, their champion against their oppressive landlords, etc., only to be informed that he is their landlord, that his agents had bought up the entire block before he arrived in England. This revelation doesn't change his resolution, and in an ironic climax the aristocrat presumably driven from his homeland by revolution becomes a revolutionary in his adopted country, turning on his own kind but ultimately destroying his estate in order to liberate it.

That's not enough for a 1970 movie, of course. Boorman is much more ambitious in narrative and stylistic terms, and won the best-director award at Cannes for his effort here. Leo the Last is a clash of styles to better illustrate its clash of cultures. The scenes with the exile community and their wealthy English friends are filmed in broadly satirical, often cartoonish fashion, exploiting Mastroianni's persona as a sometimes befuddled, sometimes fussy observer of a grotesque world. The slum scenes are more naturalistic and almost self-consciously primitive, the lens of Leo's spyglass evoking the iris effect in silent movies. Yet they're also masterworks of direction, Boorman coordinating the actions of different groups in different locations on the block as the telescope sweeps across the neighborhood, picking up action on the street and then swooping over to look through an upper-floor window, all seemingly in one take.

The problem is that the two styles don't really gel. The scenes of the exiles bestially gobbling everything in sight at a party, or bobbing about in a pool at the instruction of some self-actualization guru, don't seem to belong in the same film as the slum scenes that, though sometimes bawdy often have more of a raw edge. Boorman's satire proves to be selective. When Salambo's father dies after overeating thanks to Leo's generosity, we see a funeral service conducted by a bombastic pastor -- he wears a collar but is Pentecostal in his manner. This might have been a moment for Leo to find the pastor's shouting and wailing to be as ridiculous as the exhortations of the poolside guru, but instead Boorman wants us to take the funeral as an authentic expression of real emotions. Boorman wasn't obliged to see it differently, but my point is that a different sort of satiric imagination may have drawn parallels that Boorman fails or refuses to acknowledge. In simplest terms, the poor are the heroes here, so let's not complicate that.

Boorman is sometimes half-heartedly avant-garde. The first reel of the picture includes a running commentary by theoretical members of the movie audience trying to figure out who's who among the exiles without Boorman having to hang labels on them. These moments include some mockery of the film's own perceived pretentiousness, but Boorman gives up on the gimmick early on. It looks like he wanted to maintain some satiric distance early but finally wanted audiences to know where their sympathies should lie. Leo climaxes with a moment worthy of Cecil B. DeMille as Roscoe torches the mansion to drive out the exile reactionaries, only to have the whole building explode. Boorman replays the detonation from several angles to show off the collapse of his set as Leo and other onlookers are knocked down by the blast wave and Billie Whitelaw's skirt is blown upward to reveal her undies. The moral seems to be that we can't escape the revolution, or that privilege carries the seed of revolution with it wherever it goes, or maybe that the best intentions of the privileged can't prevent revolution from exploding out of control. But it must be all for the best, since the true end of the story is Leo's discovery of his telescope in the rubble and his final abandonment of it and his old life of voyeuristic privilege. We had our lovely explosion but no one died. Some revolution.

Still, Leo has that fascinating quality of reckless experimentation that characterizes its "death of Hollywood" period, when producers were willing to take chances bankrolling practically everything. Sometimes it's nearly as entertaining to see directors try something unusual as it is to see them succeed. It helps to have Mastroianni anchor the picture. In one of his first English-language roles, his enunciation is such that I'd be surprised if no one had ever tried to cast him as a vampire. He's at his best when his lines are brief, as when he can pack considerable range of feeling and intelligence into three repetitions of "no." His real gift for physical comedy translates well into any language. This isn't really a slapstick role but he has the timing and the facial expressiveness of the silent masters. His special gift is his ability to command our attention while observing other people's outrageousness, his slowness setting the film's pace and his expressions cueing our responses to the oddities he sees. Mastroianni's presence in Boorman's bleak Britain -- well captured in Peter Suschitzky's cinematography -- makes Leo the Last all the more an eccentric and fascinating experience.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Ho Meng-hua may deserve a place in the pantheon of directors as the patron of decapitation. He gave the world The Flying Guillotine, and if that wasn't enough, he followed that milestone of mayhem a year later with another exotic head-cutter. The "Dragon Missile" isn't a rocket but a sort of boomerang, one of a pair used by Ssu-ma Chun (Lo Lieh), the enforcer for a tyrannical local governor. The trick is to keep both in the air at once to keep your enemy confused. As he ducks one, the other swoops in to take his head off. Like many a cinematic superweapon, the dragon missiles defy physics. Chun likes to throw them into walls and trees, perhaps because he enjoys the sparks given off when his weapons strike solid objects. He works on the assumption that he can carom them violently this way to get just the right angle on his target, and while you'd think that those impacts would sap the missiles of all momentum, at least as Ho shows them with his limited effects technology, the magic of cinema spells death for our antihero's intended victims.

Chun's master is dying painfully of a rare skin cancer that manifests in nasty boils on his back. The cure is rarer still: a root that can be acquired from but one herbalist in the territory. The root must be burned, its ashes having the real therapeutic effect -- unless they get wet. After having Chun kill the diagnosing physician, the governor orders him to find the herbalist and get the root. It's important not to tell the herbalist who the root is for, since the governor is widely hated and, there being no Hippocratic oath that I know of in China, the herbalist might let the bastard die. It sounds like a simple and non-violent task, but an ambitious chamberlain decides that Chun needs an escort. His idea actually is to have his picked escort kill Chun and put the root in his hands so the chamberlain can take credit for saving the governor's life. Chun takes a "whatever" attitude toward the escort -- Lo Lieh just has that look on his face naturally -- until one of the idiots fubars the mission by telling the herbalist that the root is for the governor. Of course, Chun now has to kill the herbalist, but he won't get to kill the knucklehead that deserves it until much later in the picture. And for his trouble he earns the enmity of the herbalist's daughter, a martial artist in her own right of course.

Things go from bad to worse when a seeming bandit snatches the saddlebag Chun carries the root in. The bandit is actually the virtuous boyfriend of the herbalist's daughter, and he soon enough gets on the vengeance bandwagon when Chun kills his mother -- a martial artist in her own right of course -- after the lad stashes the saddlebag at her place. It's going to be a long trip back with the two avengers breathing down his neck and his alleged buddies waiting for a convenient time to kill poor Chun. And wouldn't you know? He has to swim part of the way.

The Dragon Missile is a preposterous picture that stays watchable thanks to a steady flow of fight scenes with a variety of styles and weapons, as well as Lo Lieh's surly charisma. But the title weapon lacks the crackpot inspiration of the flying guillotine, and as noted above, despite Ho's best efforts the missiles look silly in action. The best I can say is that the climactic fight scene features nice choreography as the actors dodge genuinely dangerous looking dragon missiles by close margins. On the other hand, the missiles are finally made hopelessly ridiculous when the heroes figure out that you really can stop the momentum of these head-cutting, branch-breaking weapons by hanging nets in their path. I saw it on El Rey so the film's own momentum was probably blunted a bit by numerous and lengthy commercial breaks, while the actors probably weren't well served by the English dubbing. Still, I think it's a treat that someone can watch TV in the daytime and see something like this, the way you could much more often when I was but a lad. At any given hour there's a lot worse you could see on TV than this film.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: an omen for the future

From the seat behind me a man taps my shoulder and asks: "Is that the Bible?" For a moment I wonder why he would ask that. Then it becomes obvious. The only double-column book most people today have seen is the Bible. From over my shoulder, the man saw two dense blocks of text like twin towers of type on the screen of my e-reader, with a minimal heading on top. Apart from appearances, however, the only thing this text has in common with the Bible is that it is old -- not quite so old, but effectively as antique for most folks -- and somewhat fantastical.

It was not the Bible, of course, but a page scanned from the March 25, 1939 issue of Argosy. The cover might have made things clearer.

For the past year my interest in pulp fiction has been growing rapidly. It started with discovering the different places online where people have scanned and uploaded complete stories and complete issues of the old fiction magazines. There's a lot out there that I'll tell you about eventually, but it only whetted my appetite until I was ready to start my own collection of original magazines. For some time now I've wanted to share my interest in pulps with an audience, and like an old Roman I took today's incident on the bus as an omen indicating that it was time to get started. Over the next little while my movie reviews will share space here with posts about real pulp fiction from a golden age of storytelling. If I can keep up my enthusiasm, or if I see proof of yours, I intend to start a blog dedicated to the pulps later this year. Before this month is out I hope to post an introductory article and a story-by-story review of the Argosy issue shown above to mark its 75th anniversary. There are a lot more where that came from, and more are coming in steadily now. I'll tell you where you can find a lot of them, and I'll show you some of mine. This will be the story of a doomed medium that shared many of the virtues and flaws of cult cinema, and as you may have noticed already, some cinema finds its roots in pulp. It's the story of a heroic age when people could write their way out of the Great Depression by satisfying a hunger for narrative in some ways less and in some ways more demanding than our own. My survey will range beyond the fiction mags into other contemporary media (radio, early comics, etc.) and listen for the echoes of pulp in today's popular narratives. I want to save the whole declaration of principles for later, but I hope this is ballyhoo enough to get you interested. The simplest way to put it is that if you like the movie reviews, I think you'll like the pulp reviews too.


Sunday, March 16, 2014


Japan's answer to The Agony and the Ecstasy is heavy on the agony. Shiro Toyoda directed this adaptation of a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose fiction also provided the basis for Kurosawa's Rashomon. This story gives us a tragic clash of monster egos between a cruel and decadent ruler (Kinnosuke Nakamura) and a stubborn, fatally literal-minded artist (Tatsuya Nakadai). While you might think original author, screenwriter and director should naturally favor the painter, it's a closer call than you might expect.

Hosokawa (Nakamura), aka "the Paramount Lord," wants the ethnic Korean painter Yoshihige (Nakadai) to decorate a lavish Buddhist temple he's building with art glorifying the Buddha and his teachings. Yoshihige wants the fame that will come from painting the temple walls, but refuses the recommended subjects because he only paints what he knows. Lately he can't get out of his mind the sight of an old man who was trampled by a bull that had broken loose from the Paramount Lord's Chinese carriage during a festival. Yoshihige paints a portrait of the corpse, disgusting the PL who orders it destroyed. The painter reluctantly complies but warns the PL that he'll most likely paint it over again.


Another issue divides the two men. Yoshihige has kept his daughter (Yoko Naito) on a tight leash and resents her seeing his one non-Korean student. The young man has nothing to do but become a brigand after Yoshihige drives him from the studio. When Yoshika runs away from home in search of her love, she ends up in the PL's custody, now destined to become his concubine. She becomes a pawn in their artistic negotiations, which seem finally to end in compromise. Yoshihige will paint a scene of the Buddhist hell on a large screen. If PL accepts this as a masterpiece, he'll let the painter do a larger version of the scene in the temple.

It's good to be the Paramount Lord (left) but Yoshihige (second from right) isn't beaten yet.

While Yoshihige boasts of his high Korean culture (and the Japanese, as usual, despise Koreans), he seems to have attended the Coffin Joe School of Art. Realizing that he can't quite paint a portrait of Hell according to his own paint-what-you've-seen principles, he subjects one of his assistants to torture, chaining the lad, hanging from the ceiling, then leaving him laying on the floor bound and helpless while Yoshihige cracks open an urn full of live snakes. At this point most viewers might judge the painter slightly ahead in the "who's worse" race.

Paramount Lord closes the gap soon enough. Yoshihige tells him that the screen painting is almost done, except for one detail. The thing that'd really pull the painting together is a burning Chinese carriage with a man screaming inside, so would PL please provide a carriage to burn? PL is happy to make some sacrifices for art, but he has a bad feeling that Yoshihige would like him to pose personally inside of the burning carriage. Having convinced himself of this, PL figures that a cool way to turn the tables on the arrogant artist would be to have the role of the doomed passenger played by Yoshika. This really seems to be all about the carriage as far as PL is concerned. Ha ha! he says; you don't really want the carriage burnt now that she's inside, do you? He's taken aback a bit when Yoshihige practically dares him to do it -- we learn later that Yoshika had warned PL about this possibility -- and PL can't lose face by refusing the dare. So the pretty young woman burns, cursing both men, while Yoshihige writhes in despair until he hears her last words -- she cries the name of her art-student lover. Then he turns crazy calm and gazes at the pyre with an artist's icy eye, promising ultimate victory to himself.

The denouement gets into spooky territory and I won't spoil it. But it got me thinking about the challenge of adapting literature about art to film. Literature can get away with attributing awesome if not supernatural powers to works of art because it can leave the details of the artwork to the imagination. The author can get away with saying the art has this fantastic effect on people pretty much because he says so. Put that same story on film and you probably have no choice but to show us the piece of art that has such a stupendous effect -- and then you risk the audience questioning whether the art they actually see can have the effect the original writer imagines. The studio artist you hire is most likely not the equal of the fictional artist in their common field, so the attempt to show never can live up to what the writer tells.


Shiro Toyoda helps himself out of this trap by establishing that Paramount Lord is already in a highly-agitated, suggestible state of mind when he finally sees Yoshihige's finished work. Then he takes our minds off the adequacy of the painting by bombing us with special effects. On top of that, he's got a master thespian in Nakamura putting over PL's madness. This was Nakamura's second 1969 team-up with Nakadai, but while Hideo Gosha's Goyokin is the better film, Portrait of Hell, in which Nakamura gets top billing, gives him more opportunity to cut loose. For that matter, since both actors are stoic heroes in Goyokin Nakadai is also more intense if not hammy here, but the material demands that both men go over the top and they do it with grand style. They're the heart of the film's horror, and their implacable, irreconcilable egoism is ultimately more hellish than any vision Toyoda can whip up. Thanks to his actors, Toyoda made a memorably horrific picture.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Italo Zingarelli started producing spaghetti westerns all the way back in 1964, the year of Fistful of Dollars. His first try at the genre was Gunmen of Rio Grande; that its hero was Wyatt Earp suggests that Zingarelli was still trying to ape American films. He followed the Italian practice of recruiting American stars: Guy Madison for Gunmen; Mark Damon for Johnny Yuma; John Ireland for Hate for Hate. In between westerns he made Franco and Ciccio comedies. In 1968 Zingarelli got ambitious; he would cast two Americans in his next western, and hire an American director, Don Taylor. The lead would be Peter Graves, whose stock had risen considerably since joining the Mission:Impossible show in its second season. His co-star would be Dennis Weaver, late of Gunsmoke, later of McCloud. Production was to start early in 1969, but Mission:Impossible fell behind schedule and by the time Graves was available, Weaver was off the project. Taking his place was veteran TV character actor and recent Emmy winner James Daly. To fill out the cast, Zingarelli seems to have taken inspiration from the film Today It's Me, Tomorrow You, hiring Bud Spencer from that film's cast as the requisite lummox and hiring Japanese star Testuro "Tiger Tanaka" Tanba. While Today It's Me had cast Tatsuya Nakadai as a Mexican bandit, Zingarelli and Taylor were less daring. Tanba would play a Japanese man called "Samurai," and despite the actor's reputed skill with the English language his role would be mute. Nino Castelnuovo made it a five-man army.

Zingarelli and Taylor (and co-writer Dario Argento) made a caper picture, and the only thing missing in that respect is a scene of Graves, as "The Dutchman," in his lair studying daguerreotypes of his prospective partners before settling on the explosives expert (Daly), the blades master (Tanba) and the lummox. Castelnuovo's character is in on the plan from the start and brings the skills of a circus acrobat. While his resume was dispiriting to hear -- I'd rather do without acrobatics in my spaghettis, please -- I was relieved to learn that tumbling and flipping never really came into play. Instead, the character developed into a master of the slingshot.  Apart from that, however, The Five Man Army is almost completely disappointing. Taylor's direction is uninspired and Graves epitomizes uninspired acting. He hasn't a whiff of ruthlessness or roguishness about him, and the late twist that has him betray his four partners plays out unconvincingly even before it proves a tease. The Dutchman couldn't turn on his buddies because he's greedy or selfish, after all. Instead, he betrays them for the noblest of causes: the Revolution. He's brought them together to pull off an "impossible" train robbery and nab a Mexican government gold shipment, promising his partners even shares of the loot. Afterward, he thinks he can get away with leaving them a grand apiece while delivering the rest to the revolutionaries. But when government troops find their hideout and attack before he can get away, all five join in the fight, and when the revolutionaries arrive to mop things up, all five happily join the revolution. Joy!

Of our five stars, Daly makes the best impression as a grizzled, fatalistic cynic who gives the requisite talk about the old days being gone for good. Tanba is wasted by the failure to give him dialogue, even though Argento and co-writer Mark Richards give him the film's only romantic subplot, making him the object of a Mexican beauty's affections. Tanba also gets the spotlight in a brief moment of swordplay -- most of the time he throws knives -- and what was presumably intended as the film's action highlight. Having fallen off the train, Samurai must dash across the landscape, finding shortcuts so he can try to catch up and get back on board. The scene takes several crucial minutes that paralyze the picture. While Ennio Morricone labors frantically to make the moment dramatic, Taylor hasn't the pictorial instinct or even the sense of direction (in any sense of the word) necessary to make it all work. Meanwhile, Spencer stands out for his predictable feats of strength and gags about his appetite. In the American edition, his character talks with an unexpected accent -- that couldn't be Carlo Pedersoli's own voice, could it? Finally, I find that I have nothing to say about Castelnuovo, and perhaps it's best to be forgettable in as forgettable a film as this.

Before the film was released, Zingarelli tried to build confidence in it by announcing that he would use Peter Graves in his next picture, tentatively titled Deadly Legion. That film was never made. Instead, Zingarelli retained Bud Spencer for his next western, assigning him to director Enzo Barboni and teaming him with Terence Hill. The rest is history, specifically They Call Me Trinity and the triumph of the comic spaghetti western. ¿Quién sabe? Maybe if Five Man Army had been more successful we may have been spared that.

Monday, March 10, 2014


This is the one where Randolph Scott dies at the end. Since his character dies in at least one other movie, Fritz Lang's Western Union, I should clarify that this Gordon Douglas picture is the one where Scott's character is killed by the law. Scott co-produced it with his regular colleague Harry Joe Brown under the Producers-Actors Corporation rubric, for release by Columbia Pictures. It brings us back to the question: did Scott know what he wanted from westerns? Most people accept that his earlier productions weren't as good as the films that Budd Boetticher directed for him between 1957 and 1960, and the story of the real-life outlaw Bill Doolin may be as objective a test as we can have of what Scott and Brown brought creatively to the Boetticher films. That's because Doolins was remade, or the Doolin story simply retold, as the Audie Murphy film The Cimarron Kid, directed by Boetticher. I haven't seen this quasi-remake, but the synopsis indicates a heavily bowdlerized version that leaves the protagonist alive at the end. Boetticher can't be blamed for that, of course, but by default that leaves Doolins of Oklahoma as the darker, better film.

Scott was in a noirish mood at the time. His previous film was a modern-day western, The Walking Hills, that's highly regarded by many reviewers and reads in descriptions much like a noir. The Doolins of Oklahoma is a kind of folk noir, definitely a folksier noir than most, leavened with comedy yet inexorably bound for tragedy. The subject of Kenneth Gamet's screenplay is the gradual destruction of one of the West's last outlaw gangs. It starts discouragingly with portentous narration by George Macready, who soon appears on screen as a character in the story. It should be our first hint of where Doolins is going that the scarfaced Macready, usually a heel in movies, is one of the good guys, a lawman dedicated to bringing the Doolins to justice. Bill Doolin was an associate of the legendary Daltons who formed one of a number of gangs to call themselves the Wild Bunch. After the members are introduced, they're shown making a major score, tipped off by a soft-spoken, well-educated waiter (Noah Beery Jr.) known as "Little Bill" to Doolin's "Big Bill." Beery's historical counterpart was called "Little Dick," but Code Enforcement wasn't going to let that stand. In any event, after the robbery the gang disperses with plans to rendezvous several months later. During that hiatus, fugitive Doolin meets and falls in love with Rose (Louise Albritton), marries her and decides to settle down. But just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. Wanting him back, members of the Wild Bunch circulate a wanted poster exposing Doolin's true identity and he has no choice but to leave with them.

That betrayal turns out really to be the most villainous thing anyone does in the picture. The remarkable thing about Doolins is that it's really a film without a villain. Bill sometimes gets into scrapes with his men -- Douglas, who has an admirable number of tough westerns to his credit, including The Charge at Feather River and Rio Conchos, stages a brutal fistfight after Doolin refuses to let his men backshoot the Macready character -- but no one in the gang emerges as the Bad Guy on whom Doolin can dump his sins. It's not going to be that easy, but at least it won't be complicated in the usual melodramatic way. Instead, there's a resilient bond of forgiving friendship uniting the Wild Bunch, at least until they start dying. Little Bill uses Ben Franklin's famous saying to sum it up: they have to hang together or hang separately. Doolins is arguably ahead of its time in its episodic if not quite elegiac account of the doomed gang's adventures. It can take time for outright comedy when outlaw groupie/wannabe Cattle Annie (Dona Drake) charges into the picture. This miniature berserker was a real-life member of the gang, and Annie herself, living into the 1970s and her own nineties, is pretty definitely the last of the Old West outlaws, expiring shortly before her own moment in the cinematic sun. Drake steals the picture whenever she's in it, whether pursuing Little Bill romantically or begging with ardent bloodlust to help the gang shoot their way out of a trap -- Doolin locks her in a shed instead. The entire siege is a piece of amiable mayhem, though not without real danger. The almost rollicking tone only makes the gradual shift in tone more profound.

The Wild Bunch is whittled down by death and capture until only Big Bill and Little Bill are left. Doolin gets the idea that they might lose their pursuers by doubling back to old haunts. He returns to the town he had settled in, thinking to hide out in the home he presumes abandoned, only to find Rose living there still and still carrying a torch for him. Doolin's ready to move on at once, but Rose wants to stay with him -- to join him as a fugitive if necessary. The time to decide is short, as Doolin has once again underestimated the law. While Little Bill provokes a horse stampede to cover their getaway, but falls under the hooves himself, Big Bill and Rose prepare to flee, but Doolin has a Pathos of Renunciation moment, realizing that the hard life of a fugitive isn't right for his love. Instead, he will cover her escape back to the safety of normal life by forcing a one-sided showdown with his pursuers -- and I told you how that turns out.

Scott's films with Boetticher sometimes hint that there's little more than a hair's breadth of difference between Scott's heroes and his foes. They are alike men who want the same things from life, but the doomed villains are the ones who never figured out a way to get it other than violence. They could just as easily be victims of circumstance; the thought seems more compelling once you've seen Scott himself walk a last mile in those doomed shoes. I'm not sure that Boetticher could have done Doolins better. He most likely would have done without the narration, and doing so would improve the picture, but Douglas pretty much nails the mood Scott and Brown were after: a slowly mounting sadness, but not at the expense of the spirit of action and adventure, the thing that would be missed, except in the imagination, when the Doolins of history were all gone. The Doolins of Oklahoma took me quite by surprise in the best possible way. Perhaps a unique item in the Randolph Scott filmography, in a way it's a little gem of a western.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Expect to see more Asian martial arts pictures in the Diary now that I've discovered El Rey, the new cable channel founded by Robert Rodriguez. It will make its first impression for many people later this month when the From Dusk Til Dawn TV series debuts, but I'm already impressed by its admittedly predictable selection of authentic grindhouse entertainment. Rodriguez has the rights to run Shaw Bros. movies, and while El Rey is a commercial channel, it's also an HD channel that runs movies letterboxed. While I watch Shaw films subtitled on DVD, I don't mind El Rey's understandable preference for English dubbing, since it reminds me of the good old days when your local independent station would run "Kung Fu Theater" on weekend afternoons. The dubbing doesn't often put the original actors in the best light, but that's okay for an essentially goofy, good-hearted picture like this comedy from the late Lau Kar Leung, whose more serious fare includes the classics Executioners From and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Heroes features Lau's favorite collaborator Gordon Liu, albeit uncharacteristically mop-topped and Nehru-jacketed as an amiably arrogant martial artist introduced on the verge of a long-arranged marriage. His father's an international businessman who years ago decided that his boy should marry the daughter of one of his Japanese colleagues. That was awfully cosmopolitan of both fathers, considering that Chinese and Japanese people are usually portrayed as sharing the sort of regard for each other that Ukrainians and Russians have. Actually this is pretty much a one-sided feud, since I've seen little evidence of Sinophobia in Japanese film, while in Chinese cinema Japan may as well be the Great Satan. Fortunately, Lau and his writers want to eat their (wedding) cake and have it too, both pandering to and sending up Chinese Japanophobia.

While our hero starts out a reluctant groom, his mood brightens when his wife (Yuka Mizuno) proves pretty. His mood darkens when she also proves to be a rival martial artist and a stereotypically arrogant proponent of Japanese fighting styles. Her karate practice damages walls and wrecks statuary, reflecting her contempt of all things Chinese, from food to fashion. The marriage turns into a running "anything you can do, I can do better" battle as husband and wife attempt to demonstrate the superiority of their respective martial arts. Inevitably, our hero usually prevails, though he's shaken by wifey's demonstration of ninjitsu and her gentle reminder that, had she not been playing, the scratch she inflicted on him from ambush would have proved fatal. At last their mutual chauvinism renders them incompatible and wifey flies back home to Nippon, where her old martial-arts instructor (authentic Japanese star Yasuaki Kurata) hopes to catch her on the rebound. Our hero hopes to win her back, but remains so buttheaded about martial arts that he opens his love letter with yet another assertion of Japanese martial inferiority. When the instructor intercepts the letter, he takes our hero's remarks as an insult to all Japanese martial arts and assembles a team of experts -- he is a ninja himself -- to avenge the slur. This team, now trailed by a repentant wife who wants to avoid bloodshed, heads to Hong Kong to challenge our hero to a series of duels, pitting his versatility against every Japanese fighting art except sumo and kamikaze flying.

Few in the audience, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere, could be obtuse enough to miss the subtle ways in which Lau has Chinese hero exacerbate the cultural conflict with his own arrogant chauvinism. To drive the point home, he has the hero unwittingly snub a kendo specialist who, admitting defeat, offers him his sword. Given a huge opportunity to defuse the situation, our hero's ignorance exacerbates it instead. Meanwhile, Lau shows Chinese viewers something they apparently didn't see very often in movies: Japanese as honorable fighters. Appropriately for a comedy, they are not out to kill our hero. In keeping with their own cultural practice, they are as ready as chess masters to concede defeat when they realize they can't beat our hero. Some of the Japanese play dirtier than others; a hulking karate master abuses the stipulation that our hero fight one man a day by demanding to fight at the stroke of midnight, while the ninja is, of course, a ninja. But even the ninja, with perhaps the most selfish reason to destroy our hero, respects excellence and ends the film on friendly terms with him. I don't know how exceptional Lau's fantasy of reconciliation was in Hong Kong cinema, but it's definitely a good-hearted breath of fresh air compared to the virulent hate toward Japan in many movies. Gordon Liu makes a charming comic hero and, of course, a virtuoso martial artist, best demonstrating the combination in a sequence where he learns drunken boxing by having his flunkies provoke a genuinely drunken master and imitating the old man in parallel pantomime while he beats up the flunkies. Much of the comedy is less graceful, particularly the pratfalls and whining of the family servant, but the overall good nature of Heroes of the East helps you forget its flaws. It isn't really the funniest martial-arts movie, but it works as a comedy as long as you feel good by the end.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


The titles of Gene Autry's movies rarely give you much of an idea of what's going to happen. Most of the time they're song titles like Round-Up Time in Texas, most of which is actually set in South Africa, believe it or not. In Old Monterey isn't as misleading a title as that one, nor is it a song title, but it really gives no hint of the film's interesting historic context. Joseph Kane directs this "super" Republic production, which runs a good ten minutes longer than the typical Autry vehicle. Like most such, it's set in a present day in which parts of the west may as well be in the 19th century except for the occasional automobile passing through or, in this case, the increasingly frequent airplanes flying overhead. Released a month before Hitler invaded Poland, In Old Monterey is at once propaganda for American preparedness and an account of early ambivalence toward the idea. The Army needs land for a proving ground for its new bombers and wants to buy out the local ranchers in Gene Autry's home town. Gene himself is an Army man as the picture opens, as is his stooge Frog Milhouse (Smiley Burnette) and their musical buddies (the Hoosier Hot Shots). Frog drives a tank; indeed, he makes it practically fly despite his concerns about his weight -- he hooks himself up to a scale and dangles like a side of beef to see whether his newest weight-loss scheme is working. Frog and the Hot Shots want out of the Army, but Gene guilt-trips them into re-enlisting by singing "My Buddy." Gene himself is then demobilized so he can go back home and persuade the locals into selling out, and his buddies tag along.

Not many of the locals want to sell out. At the forefront of resistance is cantankerous Gabby Whittaker (George Hayes was given the "Gabby" name by Republic this very year for playing the same character in their new Roy Rogers series). The local industrialists aren't selling either, but they're only waiting for the government to raise their offer. These double-dealers want the ranchers to hold out, playing on resentment of explosions and planes flying loudly overhead. They're not above stirring up trouble to keep tensions high between the ranchers and the military. Meanwhile, Gene faces distrust from the community -- this is one of the films in which he's not known as a radio star -- while befriending a young woman (frequent Autry love interest June Story) and a small boy (Billy Lee). It's perhaps in keeping with the "super" ambitions of Old Monterey that the plot takes a drastic turn. The evil industrialist starts dropping bombs of his own, expecting the ranchers to blame the Army and stiffen their resistance, and in one of these incidents Gene's little pal is blown to bits. To repeat, a small boy in a Gene Autry musical western is killed stone dead. I still haven't seen many Autry films but I don't expect to see that happen very often, and I expect it must have come as a wallop to the familiar Autry audience.

Gene soon figures out that something was fishy about the bombing, but he also has to take drastic steps to reconcile the ranchers to the preparedness campaign. His strategy is to take over the local movie house and force the audience to watch newsreel footage of the Japanese invasion of China as he narrates the horrors of modern war. Soon enough, war comes to "Old Monterey" as the ranchers realize how the industrialist has been manipulating them. Horses, cars, trains, planes and Frog's tank, not to mention a crack army of stuntmen, are all deployed in the patented Republic action climax.

Before embarking on my Autry viewing, I had assumed that once you'd seen one singing-cowboy movie you'd seen them all. I continue to be surprised, however, by the individuality and occasional eccentricity of at least the early Autry films from before Pearl Harbor. None of these films are classics -- none even come close -- but some, at least, have more character than I would have given the whole series credit for before. I still can't say much for Autry as an actor, but there's often interesting stuff going on around him. Apart from the propaganda element in Monterey you have the rare and dangerous experience of Smiley Burnette and Gabby Hayes in the same picture. The Gabby character in this picture has a pathological disregard for truth that wouldn't be seen again until Heath Ledger's Joker; he tells at least a half-dozen different stories about how he won the medal he wears all the time. Hayes is too old to compete with Burnette in slapstick, but there's a frantic moment of one-upmanship as Gabby tells one of his tall tales while Frog performs some of his reducing exercises. Almost compulsively, Hayes begins doing deep knee bends parallel to Burnette while rambling on with his story. Additional physical comedy is provided by the Hoosier Hot Shots who go on an avant-garde instrument-destroying rampage during an impromptu performance. Between the slapstick and the stuntmanship In Old Monterey is a typically energetic Republic programmer with an added level of historic interest that puts it on a shortlist of Autry films to watch just to say you've watched one.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Alain Resnais (1922-2014)

The directors of the "French New Wave" who emerged more than fifty years ago were an energetic bunch. They have tended to work until they dropped, and it's often taken a while for them to drop. So it was with Resnais, who died last weekend at age 91, less than one month after premiering his latest feature and winning a prize at the Berlin Film Festival -- Americans will most likely see it later this year. Resnais was an established documentarian who made the leap to feature fiction with 1959's Hiroshima Mon Amour, which made Amour's Emmanuelle Riva an international star as a young woman. His signature film is his second feature, Last Year at Marienbad, which has challenged viewers ever since to figure out the truth of its cryptic story of memory and alienation (here's my attempt). Marienbad was a milestone of the golden age of international cinema in American art houses, promoted in some markets as as much a fashion statement as an intellectual mystery. I haven't seen as many of Resnais's movies as I perhaps should have; the one I'd most like to see is his 1974 biopic Stavisky, about a 1930s financial-political scandal. Of those I have seen, my second-favorite after Marienbad is La Guerre est Finie, a kind of psychological political thriller about a demoralized but not disillusioned (or is it the other way around?) exile from Franco's Spain. He worked in a lighter vein in later years; his penultimate picture translates as You Aint Seen Nothin' Yet. An old man's irony or perhaps wishful thinking? Still, he got one more film made, so I guess he told the truth. His place in cinema history, of course, was already long secure.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

On the Big Screen: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962-88)

Turner Classic Movies is playing David Lean's Oscar winner tomorrow (2 March 2014) and I own a DVD copy already, but you don't miss a chance to see Lawrence in its proper setting in a movie theater. The Madison Theater in Albany is doing a festival of Oscar winners this week and Lawrence was the main attraction, for me at least. The screen isn't necessarily as vast as the film deserves, but it makes its impression just the same. You can appreciate Lean's compositions and Freddie Young's cinematography on any scale as long as you have the proper aspect ratio, but only on the big screen are you transported to another place. You really feel far away from anything familiar in the desert scenes, but you also better appreciate the density of production design when Lean takes us through the corridors of British imperial power. Size helps, too, during the movie's most famous moment -- at least for film buffs: the seeming materialization of Sherif Ali out of nowhere from the desert horizon. Someone watching on a tablet or, Allah preserve us, a smartphone must wonder what's so special about the moment, but when Omar Sharif makes his entrance into global stardom as something more than a dot, when you can see the distant image shimmering yet plain, then you get it. Sharif is now the last man standing of the principal cast, and at the risk of heresy I feel he comes off better than the late Peter O'Toole, if only because the Egyptian isn't forced into the occasionally questionable facial contortions his co-star needs to see Lawrence's increasingly conflicted attitude toward war and his historical role. By comparison, Sharif is often O'Toole's straight man, but Ali's character-arc toward political responsibility, paralleling Lawrence's self-loathing descent toward barbarism, makes the token Arab among the stars a more recognizably heroic figure. Add that to Sharif's good looks and you can understand why, with much further help from Lean, the all-purpose ethnic actor was arguably a bigger star than O'Toole for much of the 1960s. Still, give O'Toole his due. He may overdo it sometimes as Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson's concept of Lawrence seems to get away from Lean, but his is the giant performance the role demands, and moments of ham are quite excusable, if not necessary, when your subject is as self-dramatizing a figure as Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia is very much a film of its time, a fact that became more apparent as the Sixties wore on, and it remains a very relevant picture on many levels. How different is T.E. Lawrence from Che Guevara, for instance? Both were revolutionary interlopers whose pretensions to disinterested benevolence were certainly suspect. But at the same time he reminded me to some extent of Graham Greene's Quiet American in his ambiguity, his uncertain balance of cynicism and self-delusion. In the film, at least, Lawrence dislikes the idea that Great Britain will step in once the Arab Revolt succeeds and assume rulership, shared with France, over the erstwhile subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Yet every step he takes furthers the Anglo-French agenda so long as the Arabs are ill-equipped or temperamentally disinclined to fill the power vacuum after the Ottoman defeat, as their disastrous occupation of Damascus appears to prove. Lawrence's heroic endeavors only enable the Arabs to exchange one master for another, though Faisal (Alec Guinness) at least will get a throne out of it -- he ended up King of Iraq. Between the British and the Ottomans, Lawrence idealizes Arab autonomy much as the Quiet American wishfully promotes a "third force" in Vietnam that would escape that country's Cold War dichotomy. That idealization serves to justify Lawrence's opportunity to live out a fantasy of adventure and heroism, but it also can be appealed to in order to overcome his growing abhorrence of his own growing bloodlust or his demoralization after he actually fails in one of his impossible missions and suffers unspeakable humiliation (rape?) on top of torture at the hands of Jose Ferrer.

All the major Arab characters suspect Lawrence of using their land as a personal playground, their people as playthings. At the same time, the three principal Arabs are mirrors of Lawrence's conflicted state of mind. Ali is the most obvious mirror in the sense that he seems to develop in the opposite direction, toward civilization (or at least toward politics) as Lawrence slips toward savagery. Ali is the character most likely to throw back at Lawrence some argument Lawrence had made to him, and in that sense he serves as Lawrence's conscience after the bad first impression he makes by shooting Lawrence's guide at the well. Faisal is the focus of Lawrence's idealization of the Arab Revolt, but also as aware as Lawrence is (or should be) of the tension between political ideals and raisons d'etat. But in the end the film seems to argue that the Arab most like Lawrence is Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), who is the most dismissive of idealism and the most overtly self-interested. Lawrence must appeal to Auda's greed and vanity to get him to join the attack on Aqaba, and seems a liar to Auda after Aqaba proves not to have gold but only paper money, but at the end of the story it's Auda who invites Lawrence to stay in the desert with him, who tells Lawrence that there's nothing but the desert left for him. Auda is the least sophisticated of the principal Arabs -- he has a superstitious aversion to cameras and poor taste in plunder -- but in manipulating Auda Lawrence gives us the key to understanding him, or the best clue to that understanding. He gets Auda to join the Revolt and attack Aqaba not for gold, not for politics, but "because it is his pleasure." So with Lawrence, as the man himself sometimes seems to understand. He inspires the Revolt not for Britain, not for the Arabs, but because it is his pleasure -- whether he's romping in his new Bedouin costume like a child playing Superman or slaughtering Turkish troops trying to surrender.

That "pleasure" is the irreducible element that compromises all similar "humanitarian" interventions in the defense of the oppressed against oppressors; we never do it just for them or their sake. Even if we deny to ourselves any selfish motives and protest when others perceive them, they're still there or else we wouldn't be there. If you're watching the news and feel that someone ought to kick the Russians out of the Crimea, and you get furious if someone suggests that you just want your country rather than Russia to dominate Ukraine, you probably feel a little like Lawrence did -- or at least the Lawrence of the film. So there's your relevance, without even taking into account the ongoing consequences of Lawrence's campaign and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. But Lawrence is great enough as an epic adventure film and a showcase for its two young stars that relevance is a bonus -- or if you prefer, irrelevant. No matter what you think of the world and its recent history, you ought to regard David Lean's pre-CGI achievements with some sort of awe.