Thursday, February 26, 2009

WOYZECK (1979)

As if aspiring to become the German Roger Corman, Werner Herzog took advantage of his locations from Nosferatu the Vampire and the availability of Klaus Kinski to whip together a relative quickie based on an unfinished literary classic. Because of its literary origins, Woyzeck is bound to mean more to German audiences than to the rest of us, but there's enough universality to the story to make it accessible to everyone.

As imagined by Georg Buechner, Woyzeck seems to be an archetypal victim, a "little man" oppressed by everything around him. Brutalized by his superior officers, patronized and mocked by his Captain, experimented upon by the local doctor, cheated on by the mother of his child, bullied and cuckolded by the alpha-male drum major, he breaks down under the incessant pressure, struggling to please and be all things to all people until he can't take it any more.

Playing against type (at least the typecasting of our imagination), Kinski incarnates the universal victim. This is established during the opening credits, when the camera focuses on him struggling to do push-ups while the booted feet of an unseen officer repeatedly stomp on him. He spends the entire film in a state of unfocused agony, his face like a medieval woodcut of allegorical despair. You would believe that he's a man on a bad diet -- the doctor has convinced him to subsist for months entirely on peas, though he might soon graduate to mutton. And this being Kinski, you have no problem believing that he's going mad -- you might only ask "going mad?" But there's clearly a process of deterioration going on as Woyzeck struggles to articulate ill-digested ideas from his superiors while suffering from worsening delusions. In time the very earth is telling him to kill, and he obeys.

Herzog was working on the fly and on the cheap here, but his ascetic style is well-suited for such a place. Many of the scenes are single long takes, as when Woyzeck barbers the Captain and tries to defend himself from the charge that he lacks virtue. One classic Herzog bit is the performance of a "learned horse" in a local carnival. Getting it all in as few shots as possible makes obvious the extent to which the beast's apparent intelligence results from his master's manipulation. We're clearly meant to compare this with Woyzeck's fumbling efforts to obey orders, conform, or absorb the ideas of those around or above him.

The big moment when Herzog attempts to make a virtue of his low budget is the climactic murder scene. The director either has no means to pull off stabbing effects or no desire to do so. Instead, the camera remains focused on Kinski's grisly mask of a face as he "stabs dead" repeatedly into a body below the camera frame, at first seeming confused that he hasn't killed with one blow, then getting into the rhythm of the attack. We're back to the most fundamental horror, left to our own imagination of what Woyzeck has wrought.

If the film seems to end abruptly (and it's only 80 minutes long), that's because Herzog apparently quit where Buechner's play stops. Other hands have attempted to finish the story in different forms (there have been other plays, an opera, and a Tom Waits musical), but Herzog is satisfied to leave us with a corpse and a vanished Woyzeck --perhaps illustrating the complete disintegration of his protagonist. He's told what he wanted to tell. Modern audiences might demand more victims, but by 19th century aesthetic standards Woyzeck does more than enough, and in the film the horror doesn't multiply by body count but through a metastasis of madness in Kinski's face.

Woyzeck defines grim. Herzog's archaic sensibility guarantees an authentic-seeming experience of the seedy side of the 19th century, and the Czech town he filmed in is a completely convincing location. The soundtrack combines recognizable period classics with the astringent dance music of a string band of presumably authentic period instruments. Eva Mattes as Woyzeck's woman won an award at the Cannes film festival and earned it by telling a group of children what is probably the bleakest fairy tale ever told. Kinski seals the deal with an intensely physical, choreographed performance. Contrary to his wild reputation, his every move here seems carefully thought out for dramatic and artistic effect. As the Captain says of Woyzeck, running through creation like a razor as he does, he's bound to cut someone. Herzog and Kinski alike are very sharp here. Score another one for the Albany Public Library with this addition to its foreign film collection.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


"We defy traditions of moviemaking." the trailer announces, promising an unprecedented combination of terror, comedy and kung fu. Quantitatively, at least, Sammo Hung's milestone film delivers the goods. Here's the preview.

A decade or so before his "Marshall Law" days in America, Hung is "Bold Cheung," whose bravery, he claims, "is known far and wide." He suffers from scary nightmares in which undead spirits chew on his flesh. These fail to impress his wife, who says, "Being chased by ghosts is better than sleeping with you." He seems happier hanging out with his cronies, who challenge him to the Peel Apple game, which is just an excuse for his pal Ah Dooh to scare him. As it happens, Ah Dooh is pulled into another world through a mirror by a real ghost who nearly gets Cheung before his house falls apart. This outburst of supernatural horror has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, Cheung is a carriage driver for Mr. Tam, a rich mayoral candidate whom our hero comes to suspect of sleeping with his wife. He doesn't manage to catch Tam red-handed, but his suspicions could complicate Tam's political ambitions. Cheung must die, and "it has to be a clean job," but the target's kung fu skills may make things difficult. How about witchcraft, then? As Tam's flunky suggests, "If it didn't work it wouldn't be so popular here." So the flunky hires out a shaman, Master Chin, who figures that he's saved so many lives with his talents that there wouldn't be anything wrong with taking a life if the pay was good. His colleague Tsui disagrees, putting the mystics on a collision course, with poor Cheung in the middle.

No synopsis can do justice to the escalating absurdity that follows. Chin piles on the rituals, muttering gibberish all the while, in a way that I presume Chinese audiences found as ridiculous as I did. It seems like a parody in advance of the more straight-faced supernatural movies like The Boxer's Omen that were appearing around the same time. For every spell Chin perpetrates, Tsui has some equally outlandish remedy to offer Cheung. Hopping vampires, for instance, can be repelled if you throw eggs into their coffins when they try to get out -- but only chicken eggs will work. Doing this actually does more damage to Chin, who operates the undead by remote control, than to the hapless vampires. If you find that your lazy grocer has given you duck eggs when chicken eggs are essential, you can always throw dog's blood on the monster to really hurt his shaman master.

You'd think we had material enough for an exploitation epic here, but on top of this, Cheung gets framed for the murder of his wife and pursued by a dogged inspector. He takes refuge in yet another haunted house where the resident corpse has a habit of imitating the motions of the living, even when Cheung has to relieve himself against a wall. Cheung tries to trick the dead thing into braining itself with a brick, but gets it in the head himself and concludes that the corpse is too smart for him.

Zombie see, zombie do. Sammo Hung (right) and friend in SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS.
(screencap from

Later, in a precursor of Evil Dead II, Chin takes control of one of Cheung's arms, making him do kung fu on himself before Tsui can save the day by wrecking Chin's latest altar. Tsui then takes over the inspector's guards and makes them fight him while Cheung escapes from a restaurant known for its ribs and rice. Everything is building toward a double showdown, as Cheung tracks down the owner of an incriminating shoe found in his house, while Chin and Tsui get into the ultimate shamanistic pissing contest of whose altar is bigger. Chin's newest model is several stories high, but Tsui's is mobile and can be cranked upwards to match Chin's in height. From their elevated positions they wage mystic combat while infusing Cheung and Tam with the spirits of ancient warrior deities and spirits. This makes Cheung fight and talk like a monkey, or like an alien baby, depending on what's possessing him at the time. The climax extends to a man-on-fire high dive and an attempt at reconciliation by Mrs. Cheung, who did not die but gets a well-deserved but still shocking comeuppance to end the film.

To be honest, I felt that Spooky Encounters (also known as Encounters of the Spooky Kind) was a little longer than it needed to be, though it definitely picked up the pace once it really got going. The hopping vampire scenes seem to drag at first glance, but in retrospect their slow pacing is a good way to gradually acclimate the audience into the realm of the spooky. A film like this needs an over-the-top finish, and got it, though it's perhaps too brutal a finale for a comedy, at least to modern American tastes. But you have to laugh when the hero tells a dying man that his must have been a nasty fall, and is told, "Why don't you try it?" before the victim expires.

The movie never gets more gory than its initial dream sequence, when a ghost takes a realistic divot out of Cheung's leg. From that point, the violence is slapstick in nature, even though the players are playing for keeps. For the first half-hour or so, the film isn't that funny, but once the business with Cheung's cronies is put out of the way and the real story begins, you'll probably feel vindicated for sitting through the the slow start. Kung fu vs. the undead should be a winning combination, especially with voodoo kung fu (we may as well call it that) on the side, and if Spooky Encounters doesn't quite hit the jackpot, it's at least partially rewarding to the right kind of viewer.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


The Library of Congress restoration of James Cruze's musical drama now available on a Kino DVD is like the typical ancient Greek sculpture you might see in a museum. It's missing some pieces as well as its color. It arrived at the Albany Public Library burdened with an awful reputation that actually made me eager to see the film.

Early talkies fascinate me. They are victims of rapid technological development, obsolete within just a few years of their first appearances, and in many cases lost to history. Because of limited sound-recording technology, the early talkies are derided for their primitive camerawork and clumsy narrative techniques. They often are pretty awkward, but that quality assures them of that accidental-documentary status that arouses my interest. Because they're compromised by limited technology, they can be relegated almost by default to the "cinema of attractions" outside the classical tradition of seamless narrative and the invisible directorial hand. At the same time, they're documents of the late 1920s, an early high point in American pop culture, and among their attractions are Art Deco production designs and the music of Tin Pan Alley. On top of all that, The Great Gabbo features the talking debut of Erich Von Stroheim.

By 1929 Stroheim was already a living legend twice over, first as "The Man You Love to Hate," the portrayer of evil Prussians during World War I, then as the archetypal tyrannically extravagant movie director. Hollywood itself had a love-hate relationship with him. The studios frequently fired him from movies in mid-production, but kept taking chances on him because, when everything came together, his pictures could be big hits. Here, however, he is only an actor, albeit the star of the film. He was directed by a man best known for the first epic Western film, The Covered Wagon. Stroheim regarded Cruze as a friend, and explained his approach to acting in another man's project by noting that, as he knew how to command as a director, he also knew how to obey.

Stroheim is Gabbo -- we never learn if this is a stage name or his real last name. He's an ambitious ventriloquist who shows off his talent by eating, drinking and smoking while Otto, his dummy, sings and jokes. He's also a struggling ventriloquist, performing in Paterson, New Jersey as the film opens. He has a tense relationship with his assistant, presumably also his girlfriend. He deals with his anxieties by playing the tyrant with her (and by indulging in superstitions), but Otto often expresses his conscience and his tender side. After Mary, the assistant, drops a prop on stage, his rages drive her to leave the act. She challenges him to explain why he's playing small towns if he's so great, and urges him to think more of others. As she leaves, Otto laments her departure, and Gabbo snaps, "Shut up! You know we can't call her back."

A theater couple have been listening in the adjoining dressing room. Wondering why Gabbo is angry so often, the woman speculates, "Must be something wrong with his stomach." "Stomach, nothing!" her husband scoffs, "Something wrong with his skull. He's got a screw loose, sure."

Time passes, and the same couple are at home, the husband reading Variety. He learns that Gabbo has become a success after all, performing in a Ziegfeld style revue in New York. Maybe Gabbo is better off as a one-man act. "I could do a single myself," hubby reflects, "But he was cuckoo." "I wish you'd get as cuckoo as he is," wife replies.

Go figure. Maybe Mary was holding Gabbo back, although it seemed like she was the only thing holding him together. Success though he is, Gabbo isn't above doing publicity stunts to promote the revue. He arrives at a nightclub in a limo, attended by chauffeur and footman, and takes Otto to dinner. He dines enthusiastically as Otto sings and mocks the waiters. And who should happen to be in the same club? It's Mary, who has also succeeded, though not alone. She has a male partner in a musical act that's part of the same revue Gabbo stars in. Frank comes across as a real jerk, instantly jealous of Mary's renewed attention to the newly suave Gabbo, who gets the house band to play, "I'm In Love With You," a tune from the show, while a spotlight shines on her. While Frank powders his nose or something, Mary visits Gabbo's table, where Otto tells her that "No one ever combs my hair like you," and Gabbo assures her, "Yes, Marie, we both miss you very much."

The remainder of the film is set during a performance of the revue. Elaborate musical numbers filmed from multiple camera angles are intercut with the plot, with Frank growing still more jealous as Gabbo sends flowers to Mary's dressing room. Gabbo prepares for his own act, very friendly toward Louis, his dresser until told that it's time to go onstage. It's as if his old anxiety hits him and he suddenly starts yelling at the dresser. finally firing him on the spot.

On stage, Gabbo is masterful. As "The Greatest Ventriloqil Exhibition of All Times," he's dressed like an old-school diplomat down to his medals and knee-breeches, as if to sell that he'd performed before the crowned heads of Europe. The act is actually a pretty standard one. Otto is your typical irreverent dummy who ribs Gabbo and subverts his pomposity. Unfortunately, Otto's voice (not Stroheim's) is too mild and childlike when it should be sharper or more raucous, and his rendition of his theme song, "I'm Laughing," is cloying. Overall, though, the act is amusing, as Otto taunts his master with zingers like, "If I keep quiet we both starve to death. Put that in your smoke and pipe it." When Gabbo stuffs his mouth with a handkerchief while Otto sings, the dummy comments, "Last year he used to swallow a tablecloth." But when Otto demands a hot dog from Gabbo's overloaded dinner plate, the star retorts, "Since I'm you, I'm eating enough for both of us."

The volume of musical numbers increases as the romantic plot approaches its resolution. This brings in some eye candy, as we see chorines changing costumes, briefly revealing their scanty undies, and some of the showgirls standing on pillars, seen only from a distance, seem to be nude. This was still tolerated, if not necessarily permitted, in 1929. There's also time for some Deco-psychedelia in the "New Step" number.

The drama comes onstage as Mary and Frank argue while performing the movie's most bizarre (surviving) number, "Caught In A Web of Love." It kicks in just past the 3:00 mark of this YouTube clip.

Seeing the tension, Gabbo thinks he has a chance, and wants it. But what Frank has been pressuring Mary to spell out to Gabbo, we finally learn, is that they're married. Gabbo's behavior from this point is actually quite understandable. Regardless of what the filmmakers intended, Mary comes off as an offensive tease here. The right thing to have done would have been to put Gabbo straight at the nightclub. But the writer apparently wanted to have a big shocking revelation at about this point.

I was expecting Gabbo to go into Tod Browning territory at this point, with the mad ventriloquist attempting to destroy the show and the stars, but mere destructiveness wouldn't let Stroheim go berserk as he does here. Let him show you how to laugh as only he can.

Given the movie's awful reputation, The Great Gabbo unsurprisingly ends up better than I expected. As a musical it's definitely nothing great, but even these pre-restoration clips should show that Cruze filmed them fairly creatively for the time. He shouldn't be punished forever for not being Busby Berkelely. On the DVD, the image is quite crisp and glossy and the sound quality is possibly as good as it ever was. But the main attraction is Von Stroheim, who proves that, as they said in those days, he "had a voice." It's more of a growling drawl than the stock Prussian accent people may have expected from him, and he's fluent enough in English to make himself sound both pompous and plebeian as he needs to be. He can also handle the emotional range from hopefully repentant to insane rage, though he succumbs occasionally to the early-talkie tendency to talk...more... slowly...than...he really... has to. People who know him only from Sunset Blvd. should check this out (you can see the whole thing for free online, albeit in pieces) to see what he could do at full power as an actor.
For me the whole movie was redolent of its era. Because of its supposed primtivism, it seems like a window into the actual 1920s. It's datedness is a virtue for anyone who watches the film out of historical interest, and its overall strangeness makes it worthy of interest for anyone looking for an unconventional viewing experience.

The 1970s: A Historical Note

Robert Cort writes for the letters page of the March 2 issue of The New Yorker:

When I ran advertising and publicity at Columbia Pictures in the late nineteen-seventies, the marketing team worked for the production team. The studio chief and his head of production decided what movies they would make, along with their budgets and cast. We marketers were handed movies and told to sell them. Those production executives chose movies because they loved the stories and believed in the talent, without slavish reference to target audiences and high concept. Their movies were indisputably more varied and complex, artistic and controversial, and they made money. Marketing is a hugely important part of the movie business. But, by becoming so dominant, it has taken the focus off what really matters -- passion.

Monday, February 23, 2009

THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (El Espiritu de la Colmena, 1973)

A whole little genre of Spanish-language horror cinema begins with this unusually eerie movie which has practically no supernatural content whatsoever. But it has the setting -- Spain in the aftermath of Franco's victory in the Civil War -- and the key figure of a small child -- that we've seen often since, especially in Guillermo del Toro's Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Having seen Victor Erice's debut feature, I can understand how profound its influence must have been. It's creepier than many of the Paul Naschy vehicles and Blind Dead films that represent the Spanish horror genre of the time.

It opens over children's drawings and with the classic words "Erase una vez" -- Once upon a time. The time is the early 1940s, and the movies are coming to a small Castillian town. Is it a horror movie? A cowboy movie? Right the first time: it's James Whale's Frankenstein, as announced by a female town crier. But before the show, we're introduced to a beekeeper, Fernando, and his wife Teresa, who we find writing a letter to someone close whom she left behind because of the war.

Frankenstein plays at City Hall, on a bring your own chair basis. Edward Van Sloan makes his customary introduction in dubbed Spanish, which when re-translated into English comes out rather different from the text I remember. The kids in the audience are held rapt by the Monster, especially his encounter with Little Maria by the lake. Recall that this is almost certainly the censored version of Frankenstein, so that the children don't see Karloff dump the girl into the water. But they do see Maria's father carry the dead girl into the middle of the wedding festivities, and this sight disturbs one little girl in particular. This is Ana (Ana Torrent), and she and her slightly older sister Isabel are Fernando and Teresa's children.

Heading home from the show, Ana asks Isabel, "Why did he kill her?" Isabel promises to explain later, after she chases Ana home with the cry, "It's Frankenstein!" In their bedroom that night, accused of being a liar if she doesn't tell, Isabel explains that "Everything in the movies is fake," but that she has seen the Monster in person. He is a spirit that can put on a disguise and travel about at night as if he has a human body. It might be possible for Ana to meet and talk to him.

Ana now has the Monster on the brain. It doesn't help that the next day's schoolwork involves attaching cutout body parts to "Don Jose" as part of an anatomy lesson. Ana gets to give him his eyes. After school, Isabel shows her sister where "Frankenstein" lives. It's an abandoned barn across a vast stretch of farmland. In a beautifully composed long shot, the tiny figures make their way across the field to the barn, where they inspect the barn and a well without results. Later, Isabel explains that Ana won't be able to see the Monster until he gets to know her. Isabel is plainly making it up as she goes along, but Ana doesn't understand this.

What does Mom know about spirits? "With the very good girls they're always good," Teresa tells Ana, "but with bad girls they're bad." But Ana is a good girl, isn't she? She visits the barn regularly, hoping for a glimpse of the Monster, while Isabel looks on. Later, while playing with her dad's typewriter, Ana hears a crash and a scream. She finds Isabel laid out on the floor beside a broken flower pot and a swaying rocking chair. Ana can't rouse her. She leaves the room, then peeps back in. Isabel's still laying on the floor. Now Ana's worried. She runs out to summon Milagro the maid, but can't find her. She comes back to the room to find Isabel gone. Then gloved hands grab her from behind. Isabel has pranked her again.

Later yet, we see a man jump off a moving train. He limps across a familiar field to the familiar barn. Inevitably, Ana discovers him. He points a gun at her, but she offers him an apple. Later, she fetches him more things: a coat that has a musical pocket watch in it, and more food. We've seen the watch before: it's Fernando's.

An apple a day keeps a monster at bay? Ana tests the premise in THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE.

One night, the air around the barn crackles with gunfire. The next morning, Fernando is summoned by the police. They want to know why the dead fugitive has his coat and watch. At the family table later, Fernando's suspicions grow. On her next visit to the barn, Ana is stunned to discover that her new friend is gone. When she sees bloodstains on the ground, and discovers that her father had followed her, she draws a terrible conclusion and flees. There follows a torchlit search through the woods out of a movie while Ana seeks shelter by a stream. In the moonlit water she sees a familiar face. In the dark of night rather than daylight, the Monster meets another little girl....

It takes a little while for The Spirit of the Beehive to define itself, but once it adopts Ana's perspective, it becomes a powerfully evocative story. It acquires a patient pace to accommodate her struggles to understand what's going on. This pays off in the scene in which Isabel plays dead. We ought to anticipate that she's pranking her sister, but Erice plays the scene out at such length that we, like Ana, begin to worry about what we're seeing. The director also has a strong sense of proportion, best illustrated in the walk across the field, where we're able to appreciate the vastness of the field compared to the tiny figures of the girls, who we can still see distinctly from a great distance walking across. Erice has an impressive sense of depth and distance. Throughout the film, Ana is the focus and balance of composed images that reinforce her vulnerable smallness and the potentially threatening bigness of everything around her. The result is a constant sense of anxiety that the world might swallow her up. The actress, seven year old Ana Torrent (who grew up to be a fairly attractive woman and award-winning actress who still works in movies, including last year's The Other Boleyn Girl) is one of the best child performers I've ever seen. She's not precocious in any way or inordinately charming, but quite convincing as a confused little girl under the spell of a great movie.

The "spirit of the beehive" is explained in something Fernando has been writing, in which he predicts that anyone who examines the glass beehive he's built and the "mysterious maddened commotion" inside will feel "indescribable sadness and horror." The honeycomb pattern on the door panes in Fernando's house invite an analogy with a large beehive, and Ana has seen both commotion and horror, some fake, some fraudulent, some all too real. A doctor says she'll "begin to forget" her experiences, but the final scene suggests that they'll leave their imprint just as Frankenstein did -- that they'll be superimposed together for a long time yet. The Spirit of the Beehive may leave a similar imprint with people who watch it in the right spirit. The trailer will tell you what to make of it, but you should be able to draw your own conclusions.

Robert Quarry (1925-2009)

The Arbogast on Film blog has tipped me off to the demise of one of the top horror men of the early 1970s. Quarry is best known as Count Yorga, the modern-dress vampire who appeared in two movies. He also starred in The Deathmaster and figured as a villain in Dr. Phibes Rises Again and Sugar Hill, among many other efforts. There was something about his smooth sounding voice that impressed me and made him a formidably villainous figure in my young mind, even if the smoothness was thrown away whenever Yorga went on a real rampage. So come back for a minute or two to those long-gone grindhouse days, when actors and entertainers who are now departed only pretended to be dead...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Brief: WANTED (2008)

In light of my comments on silent comedy below, I'm actually a little glad to see films like Timur Bekmambetov's maiden American effort keeping up the old Mack Sennett tradition of absurdist slapstick. Some of the gags in this comics-derived extravaganza put me in mind of Keystone classics like Super Hooper-Dyne Lizzies or Lizzies of the Field, or any of the ones with lots of car crashes, and I bet that old Ben Turpin could curve a bullet with the best of them if he had to, except that he'd probably have to use a curved gun to get the effect. He and Sennett would have killed (not literally, one hopes) to have thought up a gag like the big climax in the current film where the lead harridan sends one bullet in a circle through a roomful of heavies before finally braining herself. I'm sure Sennett would also have envied the bit where the hero hits his so-called friend with a keyboard, sending keys flying to form an expletive that Sennett himself, however, probably would have avoided. But while it's nice to see that the comic tradition survives, I do wish this film were a bit more comical. Like many early Keystones, Wanted suffers from every character in the movie being about equally obnoxious. That's part of their anarchic spirit, of course, but in this case I kept waiting for the insufferable self-pitying twit who happens to be the hero to get his own comeuppance, yet it never happened. It seemed as if we were actually meant to empathize with him in his initial plight of white-collar drudgery, but that can't be right. The better ending for this movie would have been for Wesley (James McAvoy) to wake from his fantastic dream to find himself the object of some practical joke in the office. But those reservations shouldn't eclipse the clever bits like the blatantly telegraphed Star Wars parody (oh, the "villain" killed your "father," did he?) or the skillful work of the man who can parry bullets with his butcher knife. Also, it's not really this film's fault that Burn After Reading satirized the whole "everything you know is a lie" school of screenwriting more effectively. As a whole, however, this movie is too often either too absurd or not absurd enough, and my own preference is for the Hal Roach style of comedy, which Robert Youngson said was funniest when you could almost believe that the gags could actually happen.
* * *
I do owe the film one other good word. Danny Elfman's "The Little Things" belongs right alongside Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" as an unjustly unnominated movie song. What was the Academy thinking to not think of these?

The Morbid Nostalgia of Robert Youngson (and my own)

What good are Robert Youngson's compilation features of the 1950s and 1960s today, when we have most if not all of the silent comedy shorts included, in their full length, unedited and unmarred by new sound effects, on DVD? Well, if we don't have some of them, it's time for some late additions to the Moon In The Gutter MIA parade. But the first question is still valid, and here's my answer. The Youngson films are textbook proofs of my argument that all films become documentaries in time. They are, in a way, obsolete references to the silent era whose very obsolescence makes them items of historical interest. For me personally, they are films that invited nostalgic feelings from older generations that have become objects of nostalgia in their own right.

The Youngson films were my first exposure to silent comedy. For years, the Christmas night showing of Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) on WPIX out of New York was a ritual for me. The less frequent appearances of The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), When Comedy Was King (1959), Four Clowns (1971) and others were also special events for me. The clips were hilarious, and I enjoyed them like I think kids still would if they saw either the Youngsons or the originals. But there was something more to the compilations that gives them a distinct character that arguably allows them to stand as independent works of art, and that was Youngson's morbid sense of nostalgia -- a quality that reminds me very much, in retrospect, of the evolution of horror fandom that was happening at the same time that Youngson was at work.

I recently picked up a DVD that contained Golden Age and When Comedy Was King. I watched both in one sitting and the memories washed over me, from the recurrence of "Humoresque" as the unofficial Youngson theme to the narration most often spoken by Dwight West. Some of the opening commentary for King sets the tone I'm talking about.

As in the bygone days of vaudeville, if anything or anybody meets with your approval, we hope you will applaud. Somewhere, ghosts may be listening.

Youngson puts it in your face as often as possible that, in many cases, the people you're looking at are dead --were already dead by the 1950s. It's as if he wants to induce a sense of loss in older viewers, while the intended effect on younger viewers like me is a mystery to me. The actual effect on me, in some cases, was something like horror. He almost revels in the misfortunes of the funny folk, as when discussing Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand.

Across the lives of madcap Mabel and jolly Fatty alike were to pass the shadows of scandal, ill fortune and early death, but that, too, was the undreamed-of future in those early Keystone days.

Here's his verdict on the later silent features of Harry Langdon:

It was like a trumpeter reaching for a celestial high note beyond human range. Audiences stopped laughing, and the little fellow slipped into oblivion.

Youngson insists on the fact that Laurel and Hardy were underrated in their time, and that their "greatness was not recognized until the twilight of their lives." He then cites a New York Times editorial praising the team, then comments on the timing of it: "but that was after Oliver Hardy could no longer hear the applause." He ends the segment: "Now the Fiddle and the Bow can play no more. Time has ended the concert and the world is finally realizing how much it loved fat Oliver and skinny Stan." King itself closes moments later with a final nod to those comedians "who passed into oblivion just before the years when the world needed them most."

The narration has a split personality at times (and in Golden Age is read by two different men). Youngson will write one of these morbid passages in the middle of recounting the plot of some short, and then resumes his jaunty synopsis as if his mask had not just dropped and shown a grim reaper underneath. Here's a relatively mild sample from King describing the career of Charlie Chaplin:
The odd thing about King is that Youngson has nothing really to say about the misfortunes of one of his star attractions, Buster Keaton, whose travails had recently become the subject of a feature film. Keaton didn't even appear in Golden Age, which suggests that by following Youngson we're tracking the dramatic rise in Keaton's reputation. On the other hand, Harold Lloyd appears in neither film, and this was most likely because Lloyd wouldn't contribute clips from the films he owned (he would release two self-produced compilations in the 1960s). Lloyd isn't even mentioned in either film, but you sense a building resentment of his non-cooperation on Youngson's part. In Golden Age, he mentions in passing that Harry Langdon is one of four great geniuses of silent comedy, and knowing viewer can infer that Youngson means the canonical four of Chaplin (in King but not Golden Age, and who released his own compilation in 1958), Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. But throughout King the narrator refers to three unique geniuses and identifies them explicitly as Chaplin, Langdon and Keaton.

The bit about Lloyd was a necessary digression, but dealing with the comparative reputation of the "First Kings of Comedy" (as the DVD calls them) brings us back to one of my main points. Youngson was at work during the period when horror fandom becomes a virtual industry, or a cult if you prefer, through such influences as the Shock Theater movie packages on television and the proliferation of post-Vampira horror hosts on local TV throughout the country. Meanwhile, not only was Youngson active at the same time, but you had phenomena like the Silents, Please! program and cruder exploitation of silent comedy like the Funny Manns TV shorts. There seems to have been a parallel development of silent comedy fandom and horror fandom. The fandoms have in common a tendency toward personality cults, and here is where Youngson's morbid sensibility becomes familiar. His emphasis on the misfortunes of his stars (and he would address Keaton's troubles in later films) had me thinking, "Poor Bela!" There's a pathos involved in movie fandom in general, I guess, that enriches the work of performers or creators who are known to have had tragic or simply unfortunate or troubled lives. It's an extension of the auteur theory, in a way, since individual movies are enhanced, for cultists, by their significance for the lives of certain talent involved.

Analogies or parallels can't be exact, but it's worth noting that, around the same time, both Boris Karloff and Buster Keaton seemed to transcend their actual career circumstances to become living legends and pop culture icons, as signified, for instance, by their presence in things like AIP beach movies. In horror-man terms, Keaton was someone on a Bela-track who ended up more like a Boris, a beloved figure who finally heard fresh applause in the twilight of his life. Harry Langdon, at least as Youngson describes him, is more of a Bela, though the reality in Langdon's case was never so abject. Chaplin and Lloyd can't really be equated with Boris because they had more control over their careers than Karloff ever had, but in broad terms of public esteem they'd be "Borises" compared to underdogs like Keaton and Langdon, not to mention Arbuckle, whose scandals are so singular and historic as to render analogies with anyone irrelevant.

Looking back on them now, I suspect that Robert Youngson's films primed me to become a cult movie fan. They were my first lessons in thinking in a cultic way about movies, in seeing individual films as part of a larger story that added meaning to each episode. They hinted, perhaps without Youngson meaning it, that films could be appraised on terms other than the conventional quasi-literary ones. But there was no hinting required about Youngson's undeniable intention to use his compilations as portals into a dead world -- a world he declared dead.

It seems that the silent comedy and horror cults had about equal standing during Youngson's peak years, with comedy perhaps predominating a bit. Over time, because horror was part of a living tradition of a self-conscious genre, horror cult has had more legs than the silent comedy cult, which has become more of a specialization in a finite field. Perhaps mass appreciation of silent comedy has suffered from its paradoxical evolution into the modern action film or "roller-coaster ride" movie, which is like dinosaurs evolving into birds -- only in reverse. But I wonder whether during the 1950s and 1960s the cult promoted by Youngson and other high priests had just as much subversive potential, or subversive effect, on young minds as is claimed for the horror cult of irreverent hosts, transgressive subject matter and "sick" humor. One step toward finding out might be to learn whether other people have similar memories of similar feelings from watching the Youngson films. But if this is just an idiosyncratic experience of my own, at least you know more about the background to some of my judgments. Make of that what you will.

Friday, February 20, 2009

BEFORE THE RAIN (Pred Dozhdot, 1994)

The filmmakers of Macedonia must be the most sophisticated on Earth. Consider that it took the United States a century to come up with a film as complexly and non-linearly structured as Pulp Fiction, but that in the very same year, the Former Yugoslav Republic came up with something just as sophisticated, perhaps more so -- and it was their very first movie! Well, movies were apparently made in Macedonia before, but this was the first one made after the country became independent, and Criterion calls it a first, so who are we to question?

We open with some children playing "ninja turtles." Their toys are real turtles, which the kids have "armed" with tiny swords. Now begins the first segment of the movie, "Words." It's about an Orthodox monk, Kiril, who has taken a vow of silence. What is he to do, then, when he finds that someone's been sleeping in his bed? It looks like a teenage boy, and thanks to subtitles we learn that the ragamuffin speaks Albanian, which the Macedonian Kiril doesn't understand. Kiril doesn't seem sure what to do, but lets the kid stay.

The next day brings a funeral, watched from a distance by what appears to be an English woman. Afterward, gunman come to the monastery. Their leader, Mitre, just buried his brother, and he thinks the girl who did the murder may be hiding on the premises. Despite vowing that "We'll find her even if she hides in America," they can't find her, though one gunman manages to machine gun a cat on a roof. That night, Kiril thinks he sees the girl, Zamira, then realizes he was dreaming. Then he starts again, and she's really there. Unfortunately, so are some of the other monks. "Time for you to leave," as they might say at the Shaolin monastery. Kiril abandons the religious life and his vow, resolving to take the girl out of the country, possibly all the way to Britain, where Kiril has an uncle who's a famous photographer. Who should turn up, however, but the girl's own grandfather, who welcomes her with a slap in the face. Her crime has started a war between the Christians and the Muslim Albanians, he fears; "Blood calls for blood now." He sneers at the notion that Kiril might care for her, and tries to prove his point by driving Kiril away. This works, except that Zamira breaks loose to join him -- only to be machine-gunned from behind. She dies with a smile, however.

We then see a naked woman weeping in a through the glass of a bathroom shower. This is our introduction to the second episode, "Faces." This is Ann, the Englishwoman we saw at the funeral of Mitre's brother. She reviews photos of refugees, soldiers, victims of war. A doctor calls to tell her she's pregnant. She vomits. On the street, walking with her mother, she encounters Alex, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer just back from Bosnia -- Kiril's uncle, we presume, played by Rade Serbedzija, one of Hollywood's all-purpose foreigners. He's quit his photojournalism gig because he didn't want to take sides in the Yugoslav wars. Later, in a cab, Ann asks if something happened to provoke his decision. "I killed," Alex explains. He intends to go back to his home town in Macedonia, and wants Ann to come along. She doesn't. Instead, we see her at a tense dinner with Nick, her ex-husband, made more tense by the boorish behavior of some Balkan(?) thug at the restaurant bar, who picks a fight with a waiter and starts a larger brawl.

"At least they weren't from Ulster," Nick laughs after the dust has cleared a little. "I'm from Ulster, sir," the headwaiter protests. So it's a still more awkward dinner as Nick offers a toast: "Here's to civil wars becoming more civil when they come over here." Nick and Ann argue, and she's convinced him not to leave, telling him she still loves him, when the thug reappears, less civil, if that's possible, than before....

Abruptly, we're back in Macedonia, and Alex is off a plane and onto a bus heading into some familiar countryside. This is the third and final segment, "Pictures." This is his first visit in 16 years. In the village, we recognize a red-haired kid as one of Mitre's goons. Alex neatly disarms him as heads off, gun in tow, to see his cousin Bojan. His memories must still be vivid, for he pulls an old water pistol out of a niche in a wall on his way. His old home is nearly an empty shell, but has a bed he can sleep in overnight. He finally meets Bojan and Mitre the next day, but he has another reunion in mind, with Hana Halili, an old Muslim flame, the daughter of Zekir, who tells Alex that "Blood is in the air." We see the baptism, and we see a local vet helping a sheep give birth to two lambs. Alex writes a letter to Ann explaining what he meant by "I killed." He blames himself for a gunman shooting a victim in order to give him a good photo subject. Then the news spreads that Bojan has been fatally stabbed. But by whom? And when is this happening -- when did it happen, exactly?...
The trailer will not help you piece things together.

Not only has director Milcho Manchevski presented his episodes out of proper chronological order, but he's also shifted time in the middle of one of the episodes. We don't realize this until sometime later in the film, at which point we realize that much of what we saw in that episode was a flashback. We find ourselves expecting certain scenes, like a meeting between Alex and Kiril, that actually can't happen. At the same time, there are several parallel scenes in different episodes. In "Pictures," Alex has a dream of Hana, followed by a true vision, just as Kiril does with Zamira in "Words." Similarly, a moment in "Pictures" when Alex shows his back to his trigger-happy relatives mirrors Zamira's final moments in the first episode. There are other elements common to all three episodes. The same Beastie Boys rap plays in different snippets in each one, for instance, and some wisdom from a monk is repeated in the form of London graffiti: "Time doesn't wait, and the circle is not round." This is apparently the moral of the movie, and one way to read it is to understand that we can't see the same events the same way every time. Another way is to note that the film itself does not form a perfect circle, since it sort of knots in the middle. Either way, Before the Rain is the sort of movie that is impossible to watch in the same way the second time around. The real test of its staying power would really be the third viewing, since many people would spend the second viewing noticing patterns they might have missed before or trying to pinpoint the time shifts in the middle episode. Once the structural novelty wears off, I think the film will stand as a fairly predictable lamentation of Balkan horrors, augmented by a strong multilingual performance from Serbedzija, who earned some international stardom for his work.

As much as I'd like to compliment the Macedonians for a good first effort, I wonder whether Before the Rain is really more of an international than a Macedonian movie. It looks like something meant for film festivals and art house theaters rather than the Skopje multiplex. Maybe we've yet to see what an authentic popular Macedonian cinema might look like, though this film gives some reason to fear that it would have much to do with killing Albanians. I don't doubt that Manchevski's opus was popular in his homeland, but I do wonder whether his people were really the movie's primary audience. This isn't a criticism of the film, but just the return of a thought I've had when seeing other reputed landmark films from small countries. It's a suspicion that these countries have more stories to tell than the world sees, for one reason or another. But we probably ought to be grateful for the stories that do get told.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


This is another film of which I had only dim childhood memories before the DVD release, mostly of the posh theme music, which turns out to be the work of mondo maestro Riz Ortolani. He knows how to stick a theme in your head, because the opening music was just as I remembered it. Of the story (or stories) I remembered virtually nothing, except for the obvious, that the film was about the adventures of a particular car. But unlike the coat that links the stories of Tales of Manhattan, for instance, the car has no special quality that charms the lives of its owners -- though the manufacturer might disagree.

Anthony Asquith's film of Terence Rattigan's screenplay is an odd collection of star couplings, starting off with Rex Harrison and Jeanne Moreau. He's a diplomat and horseman who's perhaps not as attentive to the wife as he should be, but wants to make up for it by buying her a certain car. She ends up using it for a tryst with her paramour. You might understand Jeanne Moreau straying from "Sexy Rexy," -- but with Edmund Purdom? I've seen The Egyptian and the man is a block of wood. I suppose he may be a pretty block of wood, but I'm not qualified to judge such things. In any event, Rex discovers her and is heartbroken despite his horse winning the big race, and Jeanne is stricken with guilt, for she does love her husband, after all. Harrison ends up sending the car back to the RR showroom because "it displeases me."

After 20,000 miles, including mentioned but unrecorded ownership by a gambling-addicted maharaja, the car ends up in an Italian showroom, where it's purchased by Paolo Maltese, an Italian-american gangster who's come with his moll and his flunky to marry the former in the old country. George C. Scott is the gangster, Shirley MacLaine the moll, Art Carney the worldly-wise flunky, and Alain Delon is a young hustler with a street-photographer racket. The interplay among the Americans is the highlight of the film, and Asquith seems most inspired by filming on location all over Italy. This seems to be the only episode of the film in which characters actually ride in the car on location. Much of the first episode is done on soundstages, but this middle segment, the longest, takes full advantage of the widescreen scenery. Ortolani also seems more energized on his home ground, and with MacLaine as a muse (see also his score for Woman Times Seven). MacLaine is initially bored by the tourist bit despite Scott's belligerent enthusiasm, but when Scott has to speed back home to take care of business, Delon's charms awaken her sensual appreciation of all Italy has to offer -- including a rather fake looking grotto set where Delon woos her most ardently. She and we also learn the difference between immoral and amoral (pronounced "ah-moral") personalities from Carney, whose good work here makes me wonder why we didn't see more of him in movies in this decade.

I nearly forgot about the car. Once again it's used for a romantic tryst, but that big moment might as well have taken place anywhere. The unifying concept of the film is undercut by the lack of any sense of magic, even metaphorically speaking, in the title vehicle. Unless we really are meant to be simply awed by the presence of an actual Rolls Royce automobile on our movie screens, the car has little to contribute and can hardly be called a "character" in any episode. You might at least perceive a common thread in the car being a site of tragicomic trysts, for that's how the second episode turns out, too, but there's little tragic or comic about the final segment.

By 1941, the yellow Rolls has fallen on hard times in Trieste, but can still be banged into shape for use by a famously wealthy American widow, played by Ingrid Bergman. Learning of a coup in neighboring Yugoslavia that has overthrown the pro-Nazi regime, she decides against advice from the American consulate, in the not exactly authoritative form of Wally Cox, to cross the border and pay her respects to the new regime. Bergman's political sympathies are hard to grasp. She seems happy at the change of government in Yugoslavia, but otherwise seems to be a reactionary and a hater of FDR. Reluctantly she allows a Yugoslav national with a shadowy agenda to accompany her. This is the ethnically versatile Omar Sharif, adding a Slovenian, I believe, to his repertoire. He and Bergman are to be a couple, for a time, but there is no chemistry between them. She is radicalized when the Germans dare to bomb her hotel during dinner, forcing them to serve herself from the salad bar. She's also a take-charge person with a humanitarian bent. Her natural impulse is to help the wounded and injured, and that instinct inspires her to use the YRR to ferry Sharif's partisan pals back and forth along dangerous roads. Here I was expecting a heroic demise for the car, if not for the characters, but there is no such consummation, and the film ends with the venerable vehicle arriving in New York for further domestic service.

By its nature The Yellow Rolls Royce is a mixed bag. The middle episode could almost stand alone with a little elaboration, while the first one isn't really bad but seems constrained by its brevity, and the closer is just silly. I would recommend it most enthusiastically to people who like a certain kind of 60s glossiness, including the music. Ortolani got a kind of hit out of the song "Forget Domani," which sounded more familiar to me as an instrumental than with lyrics. Overall, though he lets it rip a little in the middle episode, this is a relatively tepid score, though the theme still has its grandeur. The film as a whole aspires to grandeur but works best when it aspires least.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

EL TOPO (1970)

Give me a movie theater and here's a double-bill I would program: Alejandro Jodorowsky's western and Mel Brooks's. I mean no insult to either film, but I think that showing El Topo and Blazing Saddles together would illustrate two different ways to send-up the western genre. Brooks works in a satirical mode typical of his creative roots in the 1950s. He highlights the absurdities of the genre relative to some base notion of reality, with race relations as a reference point. Jodorowsky opts for the reductio ad absurdam, an exaggeration of genre tendencies past the snapping point. Neither director means to belittle the western. Brooks's film is not quite the labor of love that Young Frankenstein is, but neither is it a by-the-numbers genre putdown like Spaceballs. Likewise, Jodorowsky has no axe to grind against westerns, but uses the motifs of the spaghetti subgenre in particular to address more personal issues.

So how can I call myself a cult movie fan and only be watching El Topo for the first time today? To be honest, I didn't trust the film. It has always carried an air of pretentiousness about it, and I feared that its vaunted symbolism would prove rather banal. It seems too much like something made as a cult film on purpose, though Jodorowsky can hardly be accused of that even when he boasts of inventing cult (or at least midnight) movies. He didn't schedule it for a midnight showing at the Elgin theater; John Lennon did. I may also have held the period against the film, assuming it to be some kind of a "drug" movie that's meant to be appreciated only by the stoned. When it came down to it, I thought it would be boring, despite all the descriptions I'd read of it, simply because Jodorowsky seems to take himself so seriously. But Ed Wood was pretentious, too, so what harm was there in giving El Topo a chance finally, especially since the Albany Public Library had just acquired the Anchor Bay DVD? If I claimed to chronicle the wild world of cinema, I owed it to myself, my followers (I'm not pretentious, am I?) and casual readers to take the measure of this famous film.

Jodorowsky himself is El Topo, the mole -- a westerner with a small son who goes about naked. On the boy's seventh birthday, Topo orders him to bury his favorite toy and his mother's portrait in the desert. They then ride into a massacred town, and Topo takes it upon himself to avenge the peasants on the killer gang. He confronts a crew of eccentrics, each with his odd hobby, and from there goes after the real ringleader, the Colonel. He conquers that villain's enclave of decadence and claims his enemy's kept woman, kicking his naked boy into the dirt. Man and woman (he calls her Mara) try to make a living in the desert. After he rapes her, the woman can do as he does, digging fruit out of the sand and drawing water from a stump or rock by shooting it. She then gets the ambitious notion that Topo should be a "winner." He can do this by defeating the four masters known to dwell elsewhere in the desert. Each practices a form of spiritual or esoteric wisdom, but Topo takes down three of the four. The fourth defeats him by shooting himself, proving that there is really nothing to take from him and thus nothing to win. Traumatized by this revelation, Topo is left for dead by the mysterious whip-wielding woman (who talks with a man's voice) who had joined the journey, and who now administers the wounds of Christ on him with bullets while stealing away his fickle girlfriend. He is rescued by a tribe of deformed people who live in a deep cave. He endeavors to dig them a tunnel so they can leave their cave permanently. To do so he raises funds by playing a clown with his new friend, a dwarf woman, in the nearest town. The New World Order has apparently taken over there, since the eye in the pyramid is everywhere. And now I understand why conspiracy theorists worry: slaughtering or merely branding and enslaving peasants is the local sport. Ugly women impose themselves on a black man and accuse him of rape, earning him a lynching. All the building signs are in English by the way -- hint, hint. While Topo labors away, a new stranger disrupts the NWO by intervening in a faith-based Russian Roulette game. But that's just a distraction from his real business, which, he being Topo's long lost son, is to kill him. Topo requests a reprieve so he can complete the tunnel project, only to renege on the deal by immolating himself Vietnamese-monk style after the townsfolk massacre the escaping freaks and he massacres the townsfolk. Let me illustrate:

I have spared you detailed descriptions of many of the activities of the characters in the film. It's up to all of you to see those and figure them out for yourselves. I will say that much of it struck me as an illogical extension of the increasingly surreal actuality of the spaghetti western genre. An early scene in which a killer slices a banana into bite size pieces so he can skewer each one for individual snacks somehow reminded me of the absurdly tedious business of the gunfighters during the opening credits of Once Upon a Time in the West. It's all outrageous, yet trivial at the same time. And the odd abilities of gunfighters or masters are not far removed from the increasingly specialized killing or shooting techniques of the actual spaghettis, which were by this time often spiraling off into mythic extremes. Jodorowsky's Panic movement seems to have elaborated intellectually what the spaghettis had generated more or less spontaneously. The difference is not really that great, unless we insist on analyzing all the imagery. But I'm not sure that will do much more for us than tell us what's going on in Jodorowsky's head, and I don't know if the genuine effectiveness of his powerful imagery can be explained fully by that sort of analysis. The man himself will gladly elaborate on that aspect of his art, as I learned from watching the brief English-language interview on the DVD, but I'd rather give him credit for getting beyond himself in this legitimately visionary film.

As far as art direction goes, El Topo fully lives up to its reputation. It's a riot of excessive imagery, from the simple immensity of the desert to the literal animal vitality of certain scenes, as when the Colonel emerges from his pyramid-like lair and is followed out by an outburst of dozens of pigs, or the swarm of rabbits in the compound on one of the masters. At first I was anachronistically reminded of Circle of Iron, but it soon became clear how pale an imitation of El Topo that silly film was. The film it ended up more like to me was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a similarly iconographic but rather less bloody film by Sergei Parajanov. Both films are about putting archetypal strangeness right in front of the camera to express some sort of primal message. The messages we can take or leave, but El Topo, at least, is a terrific film to at least look at -- unless you're disturbed by deformities (the makers of The Crippled Masters must have taken inspiration here) or human ugliness in general, or lots of bloodshed. But if you can stand all that, you can stand at least one viewing of this historic film.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Memories of Missing Movies

There was a time when I was naive enough to think that every movie would make it onto DVD eventually, so frequently were so many once obscure titles appearing, but a growing group of movie bloggers, inspired by Jeremy Richey's outstanding Moon In The Gutter, have exposed the bitter reality. They've posted lists of the movies they still want to see on Region 1 DVD, but can't. Foremost among these efforts, apart from Jeremy's own exposes, is the festival of 100 tantalizing posters for non-disc films over at the Temple of Schlock. My contribution can only be modest in comparison, and I'll try to justify it by taking a slightly different approach. I'm going to write about a few movies that I saw long ago, as far back as my childhood, that imprinted profound memories in my mind. I can't vouch for the quality of any of these films, but they were all memorable in some way, and my mentioning them may stir memories in other readers. I'm going to go about this in chronological order.

SIGN OF THE PAGAN (1954). Jack Palance as Attila the Hun, directed by Douglas Sirk. I think I first saw this on WOR from New York City, around the time that my family first got cable TV. That was a golden age for incipient movie fans, since we got WOR, WPIX and WNEW when they were all independent stations with copious movie schedules. Here's a role Palance was born to play. The hero is actually Jeff Chandler, an actor I've never cared for who seemed singularly inauthentic in period work. His presence didn't even register with me when I first saw this movie. I was preoccupied with Palance's seeming spiritual struggle with a prophecy that a cross or a shadow of a cross would mean his doom. This guaranteed a troubled relationship with Christianity and a reticence when it came to sacking Italy that disgusted Attila's peers. "He fears his holy Leo!" is a line I well remember, Leo being the Pope who had persuaded Attila to spare Rome. I also remember the payoff that fulfilled the prophecy, and Attila's final request to "Bury me deep." Whatever budget this Universal costumer had, Palance was a spectacle unto himself.

Here's a clip from a Greek fan. I can't vouch for the subtitles.

TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) Back when American Movie Classics was a worthy and sometimes superior rival to Turner Classic Movies, the station had the rights to all the Tarzan movies. That gave me my first opportunity to see Gordon Scott as Tarzan, including this penultimate effort, which revolutionized the series. Director John Guillerman and screenwriter Les Crutchfield finally abandoned the "primitive" archetype that MGM had imposed on the character with Johnny Weismuller, permitting Scott to become a fully articulate Tarzan while at the same time giving him a more rugged story to perform in and pitting him against an incredible roster of villains including Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery. Scott rose to the occasion as "the man who lives in the jungle." He struck me as more of a Natty Bumppo type than a noble savage, though this film is arguably quite savage compared to previous kid-oriented efforts. I was knowledgeable enough about movies by the time I saw this to realize, once I saw the climactic fight between Scott and Quayle, that this was probably the nearest we'd ever get to an Anthony Mann Tarzan movie. Scott reprised this interpretation in Tarzan the Magnificent before trying his luck as a peplum star -- a career dead end, as it turned out. If the topic were top movies of my imagination, one would be the third Scott Tarzan for Sy Weintraub, a full-scale transposition of The Last of the Mohicans into post-colonial Africa. Think about it, then take a look at the trailer.

HOUSE OF CARDS (1968). I remember seeing this one fairly frequently on one of the local channels in Albany. John Guillerman returns to direct a thriller set in Paris and starring George Peppard and Orson Welles. About the story I actually remember very little. What I do recall is a very memorable score, which I learn was the work of Francis Lai, and a climactic scene on a bridge in which Welles tries to goad a brainwashed child into shooting Peppard, only to end up going over the side himself. Perhaps because it involved a killer kid, or a kid intended to be a killer, that scene made a strong impression separate from its actual cinematic merits, which we cannot verify today. While the reviews on IMDB, based on longer memories than mine, are mixed, the cast and crew list and the bare description of the story make me think that this particular landmark of the wild world of cinema might be reopened profitably. No trailer for this one, I'm afraid.

CRAZY JOE (1974). This is another item I remember seeing on WOR, usually during their 4:00 p.m. weekday movie slot. Carlo Lizzani's film about mafia renegade Joe Gallo has a natural exploitation angle. Peter Boyle made his name in a film called Joe, so why not Crazy Joe? I don't remember very much about it apart from liking it and watching it every time it was on. It was good and violent and had a unique angle of a mafia guy teaming up with black gangsters led by none other than Fred Williamson. I think I remember a kind of disco version of the song "Mona Lisa" playing over the end credits. It had a current-events quality about it, being based on a recent gang war, that gave it a quality distinct from the Godfather films, which I didn't see until the "novel for television" later in the decade. The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film partly corroborates my favorable memories. Dating the film to 1973, the reviewer credits Crazy Joe with "an almost operatic intensity" and calls it "an enterprisingly off-beat film." As my appreciation of Italian crime cinema has grown over time, I'd really like to give this film another look. This trailer brings a lot of the memories back. I remember the assassination scene quite vividly now.

I hope I've managed to stake my own territory of absence with this post. I may return to the general subject with a different emphasis on films that I've never seen, but would like a chance to see. Until then, Jeremy has a running list of contributors to the topic at Moon In The Gutter, where he's adding to his own list on a regular basis. I highly recommend a visit.

Friday, February 13, 2009

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (5 bambole per la luna d'agusto, 1970)

Mario Bava's black comedy is set on an island somewhere. I'm tempted to say its in the Mediterranean, but I don't know if you can assume that, since all the characters have Anglo or American sounding names. That may be why Bava and screenwriter Mario di Nardo have such a snide attitude toward the characters. For a couple of Italians, they are the other on which they can project all the nastiness and depravity that makes what happens look like just desserts.

Let's nail down the genre up front. Some call it a giallo, I suppose, but it hardly qualifies. As I understand it, gialli are all about creative ways of killing people. Five Dolls, however giallesque [?] the title sounds, is all about finding bodies that have already been killed, except for a few very conventional shootings at the end. Bava is said to have liked this least of all his work, and the lack of creative killing may be the reason. Still, he found ways to occupy himself, and the film is a triumph of style over substance. I suppose we could also call it a body-count film, since apart from ogling the scenery -- outdoor, architectural and female -- there's not much to do but count bodies. But body-count films are always sort of a subset of black comedy, given how audiences usually respond to them, and we're clearly meant to laugh at this film.

How couldn't you? We have ten people in the cast, four couples and two singles. The island belongs to George Stark, married to Jill, and his guests are Nick and Marie Chaney, Jack and Peggy Davidson, and Fritz and Trudy Farrell. They're gathered so George, Nick and Jack can schmooze Fritz, a professor, into selling them his important secret formula for three million dollars. The prof. isn't interested in selling; a pall hangs over the formula for him because a colleague died while they were working on it. The men's united front doesn't last long, as Nick angles to get exclusive rights to the formula and urges Marie to seduce the Professor, while people start dying, starting with Jacques the houseboy. George's yacht has vanished and his wireless telephone isn't working, so there's no way off the island and no way to communicate with the mainland. There's nothing to do but put Jacques in the meat locker, wait for other people to die, and drink. Nick does most of the drinking, since "Death makes me thirsty." He has opportunities to get quite sloshed.

Professor Farrell (William Berger) struggles to resist all temptation in FIVE

So who's the killer? Is it Isabel, the lone single female, who we see shooting the Professor with a rifle during a break from romping on the beach and stalking people? Well, this is the sort of movie where seeing someone shoot somebody else pretty much guarantees that she didn't kill everyone else -- or does it??? Any further elaboration of the synopsis would only spoil a plot that's pretty gamy already. This isn't the sort of film you watch for the story, and if efficient storytelling is your sole criterion of cinematic quality, you may as well stop reading.

The reasons to look at Five Dolls are the lush outdoor scenery, photographed by Bava and Antonio Rinaldi, the colorfully decadent indoor sets, and the uniformly luscious female cast, from Justine Galli as Isabel to the great Edwige Fenech as the particularly depraved Marie Chaney. The date is 1970, but this is still very much the swinging 60s, put to music by Piero Umiliani's swanky lounge score. It's still the era when it was hard to find an Italian film in which the music, at least, did not sound good. And Bava can't help but make the whole production look much more lavish than it actually was. However he felt about the story, he gets in a few excellent set pieces, including the mock human sacrifice bit at the beginning and a later sequence where we follow some spilt glass balls from the scene of a drunken fight down a flight of stairs into a bathtub where we find the latest victim. There's also one big scare moment near the end when Isabel has to nab a piece of microfilm (I think that's what it is) in the aftermath of a shootout in the meat locker -- which by that point is very well populated.

This is a body count film where you're almost certainly meant to root for nearly all the characters to die. They're such scumbags, such cartoonish incarnations of the idle yet greedy rich, that you most likely will cheer on whoever's doing the killing. But at the same time you can revel in their depravity, from cavorting on a rotating circular bed to puffing a cigarette from between a woman's bare toes. This film is eye candy: pure cinematic junk food that won't make you fat -- and it's okay to laugh. If you didn't, I'd wonder....

Try this clip on for size. It's Edwige Fenech dancing, stripping, and playing the sacrifice for Kraal. While I saw the Anchor Bay DVD in Italian from the Bava Vol. 2 box set, this clip is dubbed into English for your enjoyment.

"Our Gang's" Shirley Jean Rickert (1926-2009)

Local newspapers report today that onetime child actress and latter-day burlesque performer Shirley Jean Rickert (second from left in the photo from passed away in Saratoga Springs, New York, one week ago, aged 82. Rickert performed in Hal Roach's Our Gang comedies during 1931 while supporting Mickey Rooney in Mickey McGuire shorts. She carried on in movies as a background dancer in MGM musicals ranging from Best Foot Forward (1943) to Singin' In The Rain (1952) before hitting the road as Gilda in the Gilda and Her Crowning Glory burlesque act for most of the 1950s. The "Crowning Glory" was a long mane of blond hair. In more mundane work as a hardware salesperson, she found that showing photos from her Our Gang days was a great way to get in the door.There probably aren't more than ten Our Gang performers left alive now, Jackie Cooper probably most famously and Mickey "Robert Blake" Gubitosi perhaps most infamously. But to counter the stereotype of urban legend, Rickert was another one who lived a long life, and apparently one no more troubled than ordinary folks'.

Rickert in maturity, as "Gilda the Golden Girl"
(photo from

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Steve McQueen in NEVER LOVE A STRANGER (1958)

Harold Robbins co-wrote this screenplay adapting his own early best-seller from 1948. Unsurprisingly, there's a strong narrative voice through much of the picture, but it begins with a desperate drive by what looks like a dying man, ending in a crash and a body tumbling out of the car. From there we travel back in time to the year 1912, which seems a long way to go at first. A sick young woman is taking lodging in a rough building. The landlady tosses the poor girl's suitcase into a closet, where it promptly disappears behind the wall. Try to remember that, but our first concern is the young woman's health. She's in the family way, you see. But alas, she'll not long survive the blessed event. She expires upon naming her newborn "Francis Kane."

Francis is raised in a Catholic orphan asylum and becomes an industrious bootblack and boy of all work for one of the local pool halls. He's running with the wrong crowd, but that doesn't stop him from stepping in when the gang menaces a harmless Jewish boys. Their anti-Semitic sensors seem to be off, though, because Steve McQueen hardly seems like a Jew. Frankie saves him by putting him down with one punch, which Steve, who we'll call Marty Cabell for our purposes, appreciates as a reasonable alternative to a protracted beatdown. Marty invites Frankie to his place to teach him how to box. Frankie also gets to meet Marty's sister Julie (Lita Milan). Those clever Jews: Julie doesn't even look or sound like she's from the same country as Marty. Frankie, however, is unprejudiced, for who could be prejudiced against such a dish.

Two representative men of the 1920s: Steve McQueen thanks John Drew Barrymore for knocking him out in NEVER LOVE A STRANGER (photo from

Things are looking up for Frankie on both the romantic and criminal fronts until a shocking discovery is made. The old landlady finally hauls Frankie's mom's suitcase out from behind the closet, and inside finds a book written, as Frankie puts it, "in Jewish." A terrible mistake has been made! The well-meaning authorities seem to think it was unfair of them to raise as a Catholic someone who should have been a Jew, but Frankie sees it all differently. "I don't want to be a Jew!" he cries, and rather than face transfer to a Jewish school, he hops a freight, leaving behind a bankroll he's been keeping for his mentor Silk Fennelli (erstwhile Mike Hammer Robert Bray), with instructions for Julie to return it to Silk. Fennelli shows his gratitude by making her a nightclub singer and kept woman, while Frankie has timed his hobo adventure for the advent of the Great Depression, and lean years follow for him.

I have to remind you occasionally about the time frame of our story because the film itself can confuse you. Unless you look at the cars, you could hardly tell from how the people look that the story's taking place sometime earlier than 1958. Neither Steve McQueen nor our actual star, John Drew Barrymore, looks right for the period. They are neither Fop nor Dapper Dan men. I owe you an account of young Barrymore. He is the missing link, if you please, between alcoholic master thespian John Barrymore and alcoholic actress-producer Drew Barrymore. John Drew was pretty much just alcoholic. Not long after this starring role in a low-budget Allied Artists release, he was supporting Steve Reeves in The Trojan Horse across the big water, and it was further downhill from there.But whereas his father could still earn money by shamelessly parodying himself, and his daughter can claim to be a successful show-business survivor, JDB finished his career literally as a bum. But don't blame Never Love A Stranger for that. He lacks intensity, but has some of the family charisma.

As Frankie, he returns to New York to take a WPA job, during which he is hit by a truck during a moment of inattention. He's hospitalized just as Marty, a rising young prosecutor, is visiting the building. Marty gives his old pal $20 to get him started again, and once on his feet Frankie restores himself to Silk Fennelli's service as a most trusty gunsel. After three years as Silk's right hand, Frankie's impatient to take over and establish some order in the underworld. He makes his move at a gang conference, clobbering Silk into submission and declaring himself the guarantor of peaceful crime. For reasons known only to Harold Robbins, Frankie does not exterminate Silk, but retains him as an underling while reclaiming his relationship with Julie. It will be increasingly apparent that Frankie is sort of soft.

He runs the New York bookmaking operations from the safety of New Jersey, where newly-minted special prosecutor Marty can't touch him. Marty is not exactly Thomas Dewey. His campaign to defeat Frankie consists largely of meeting him at restaurants or calling him on the phone and asking him nicely to turn himself in. Otherwise, he waits for Frankie to slip up and step across the river. Meanwhile, Silk looks for some way to avenge his humiliation. He doesn't like Frankie's indulgence toward Mosh, a Jewish numbers man who wants to retire. Silk thinks Mosh should die because there's too much chance of him turning rat, but Frankie trusts the old man. Finally, Silk weaves a plot to eliminate Mosh, Frankie, Marty and his sister in one Corleonian swoop, with help from Flix the hitman (Peckinpah stalwart R.G. Armstrong). I'll skip to climactic details except to bring us back to that careening car from the opening, then forward once more to another birth and the continuation of the Kane lineage.

I think this is meant as some sort of gangster tearjerker. Everything from the omniscient narration and the lachrymose theme song to the sentimental score by Raymond Scott (otherwise a powerhouse composer) and the circle-of-life finale point that way. It certainly tries harder at that than it does to recreate the 1930s on screen. Maybe the filmmakers thought the period was close enough to the present that people wouldn't notice anachronisms, but more likely they just lacked money. The director, Robert Stevens, worked mostly in television. IMDB credits him with 44 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock show. Going to 90 minutes may have been beyond his powers. His direction here is efficient but uninspired, lacking forcefulness or momentum.

The acting throughout is pretty green. If you didn't know McQueen on sight you might not accuse him of stealing scenes. His job is to be dully earnest and he earns his pay. He is at least competent. It's hard to judge Barrymore apart from the implausibilities of the character he plays, but I think he could have handled better material. Neither actor embarrasses himself, but they look pretty silly anyway, trapped in such a silly story. The title should have told me not to expect anything really raw or violent, but the DVD did hint at something like that. This film probably exists in digital form only because McQueen is in it, playing what's apparently his first billed role, so it's historical interest is obvious, but I'm afraid that there's little of interest apart from that unless I've made it sound campy enough for an unintended laugh.

Of the book, its original publisher reportedly said: "it was the first time he had ever read a book where on one page you'd have tears and on the next page you'd have a hard-on." If so, Robbins did not do justice to his own work this time.