Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BLIND RAGE (1978): "It's going down right now in the International House of Pancakes!"

In the wake of the fall of South Vietnam, the United States government creates "Project E.S.A." to prevent the domino theory from being proven a reality. The Americans will invest $15,000,000 to finance counterinsurgency efforts and other initiatives to shore up the governments of the region. The money will be deposited in the Oriental Bank in Manila, where Johnny Duran is the liaison with the E.S.A. Duran's involvement in the scheme is known to elements of American organized crime, represented by a mystery man who corners Duran in an International House of Pancakes.

"My name is Lew Simpson," he explains, "Most of my friends call me...Wilbur." This is a fittingly strange introduction to one of the most inept performers I've ever seen. In his only performance known to the IMDB, B. T. Anderson has clear difficulty remembering his lines. Unfortunately, director Efrem C. Pinon has placed the idiot cards behind Anderson, so that he has to look over his shoulder every few moments to finish his sentences. "You've been used to money," his character tells Duran, "You've been surrounded by it eight hours........a day." Later, on board his office yacht, "Wilbur" tells Duran about Rocky, "my main man [who] has in his file, and in his head, more than five hundred names. He knows the size of their bank accounts, the time of day when they take a........take a crap." He may actually have meant that pause for emphasis, or that may be the way it was written in the script co-written by multitalented Asian-Arkansan Leo Fong. However you slice it, you know you're in the hands of masters the rest of the way.

Rocky tries to figure out Johnny Duran's bank account, crap habits or fashion sense in Blind Rage.

"Wilbur" has persuaded Duran to act as the inside man in a daring "foolproof" scheme to take the $15,000,000 from the Oriental Bank. The foolproof part of the plan, he tells his new partner, is that the robbers are blind men. There's Willie Black (D'Urville Martin), who got his eyes gouged out by gangsters, as we see in a flashback. There's Len Wang (Fong), a Hong Kong enforcer who crossed the triads and got acid in his face, as we see in a flashback. There's Hector Lopez, a matador who had his eyes gored out by a bull. No flashback for that one. Finally, there's the naturally blind magician, Amazing Anderson. They make ideal bank robbers because A. they're used to working without sight, and B. No one expects blind guys to rob a bank. That's what makes it foolproof!

The gang that could shoot straight, but couldn't see what they were shooting: from left, D'Urville Martin, Leo Fong, Darnell Garcia and Dick Adair.

Intensive training also helps. Duran puts together a full-scale replica of the bank so the bandits can learn their way around it in carefully timed and measured movements. They receive martial arts training so they can manhandle anyone who manhandles them. They become crack shooters trained to fire instantly (and accurately) at any unfamiliar sound -- and they have metal taps installed in their shoes so they'll know their own footfalls. Duran has recruited Sally, an educator at a school for the handicapped, to whip the men into shape, but only late in the game does he realize that he needs a blind electronics expert to deactivate the bank alarms. Sally knows just the man: Ben Gavara, who "needs money so he can get even with the world" for getting blinded by fellow gangsters, as we see in another flashback. He feels protective toward Sally, especially when Willie Black attempts to become a blind rapist. "Lay off her, sex-hungry bastard!" Ben warns him.

Against all odds, the robbery works, though thanks less to Ben's electronics expertise than to his knocking a guard's head into an electrical circuit to deactivate the alarm. Our trigger-happy blind men bump off several bank employees, one for merely leaning to one side, for which Len Wang apologizes. Ben goes his own way while the foreigners are packed into a leaky gas truck for shipment out of the country, and is promptly caught in a dragnet of known blind criminals. Under pressure to rat out his partners, he does so instantly. But Sally and the rest of the gang seem destined for a fiery reckoning at the airport no matter what Ben does, while Johnny Duran boards another plane for California with the loot.

Enter Fred Williamson. More specifically, enter Jesse Crowder, a character Williamson created for the movie Death Journey in 1975 and reprised in 1976's No Way Back. Crowder was apparently very popular in the Philippines, or else Blind Rage's Philippine producers thought including Williamson as Crowder would give their film a better shot at U.S. distribution. Whatever the reason, it's an odd shift in tone for the film to become a Fred Williamson movie in its last reel. For some reason the U.S. government needs a super-operative like Crowder to figure out how to tail a man they already know about until he makes contact with Lew "Wilbur" Simpson at another IHoP to bring the picture full circle. But maybe they needed a badass like Crowder to take the dangerous Duran down. Recall that he was just some schlub who worked for the bank and wore loud clothes before "Wilbur" set him up as a criminal. But now, at the movie's climax on a rooftop outside the IHop, he gets all Emperor of the North on Crowder.

Crowder: All right, Duran. That's about as far as you go.
Duran: There is no way one man can take me alive.
Crowder: [points gun].
Duran: I said one man!
Crowder: [shrugs] Forgot to load it this morning anyway.

Crowder than tosses his gun aside to engage the rogue banker in hand-to-hand combat, and actually gets his trademark cigar knocked out of his mouth before setting things to rights. That may not be enough for Fred Williamson fans who get suckered into this film on the assumption that he's the star and fights the blind bandits. VideoAsia's Thug City Chronicles collection goes so far wrong as to claim that Fred leads the blind gang in this picture. Even more disappointed will be such fans as there are of eccentric auteur Leo Fong. Though the story is as goofy as you might expect from Fong, whatever his actual contribution was, he doesn't really have much to do in the picture and his distinctive voice is overdubbed by another actor. Those caveats aside, bad movie connoisseurs should have a blast with this blockheaded epic. If the story isn't enough for you, there are outrageous Seventies fashions and ponderous theme ballad, "The System," to take into consideration. I'll leave you with some lyrics from Tito Sotto's song:

We live in a world
Of heartaches and pain
And somehow you feel
Life's just but a game

So dare not say why.
You have to survive.
The moment you fall...
...Into the System!

And speaking of falsely advertising a Fred Williamson vehicle, here's the trailer as uploaded by HuffTheTalbot

Monday, September 28, 2009


Back when I reviewed John Milius's Dillinger I assigned it to a "country bandit" genre that might trace its roots to Bonnie and Clyde. But if anything the country bandit films are a sub-category of a larger "Depression" genre that also encompassed films like They Shoot Horses Don't They?, Paper Moon, Hard Times, Bound For Glory and Robert Aldrich's hobo-geddon pitting Lee Marvin against Ernest Borgnine, with Keith Carradine jockeying for position as a young punk aiming for homeless celebrity. Did all these films reflect a nostalgia for hard times, or did the Depression years have some other symbolic significance during the late Sixties and early Seventies? Maybe Depression films were a more relevant substitute for Westerns, providing a setting where loners had to learn to survive and fend for themselves. It seems significant that the opening crawl for Emperor of the North identifies Depression hobos as outcasts. They may have been objects of identification for youth audiences who might have seen themselves as outcasts from conventional society. I don't know how good an analogy that is, however, since there's some difference between a hippie drop-out and someone who's homeless because he has no money and can't find work. On the other hand, Emperor isn't as much about poverty as, say, an actual 1930s hobo movie like Wild Boys of the Road. You might not call it a transposed western, but it has a pulp quality that obscures whatever social context remains in this retrospective account of life on the rails.

Neither of the principal hobos, Lee Marvin's "A-No. One" and Carradine's "Cigarette," seems motivated by necessity. Marvin seems to ride the rails to show that he can, especially when train bosses claim that he can't. Carradine seems intent on making a name for himself in hobo-dom, though he claims that he already has. Their ambitions put both men on a collision course with Ernest Borgnine's Shack, the boss of the No. 19 train, who claims that no man has ever rode his train for free. He, too, has something to prove after an incident in which Marvin and Carradine, trapped in one of Shack's cars and fearing a beating, burn their way out, creating an impression that they've already beaten Shack. That'd be a major event among the train men, many of whom hate Shack as a harsh taskmaster. He and A-No. One are celebrities in their own shared subculture of trains and hobos, and A-No. One's public announcement that he'll ride the No. 19 to the end of the line, both to spite Shack and to prove his superiority to the suddenly lionized Cigarette, sparks a betting frenzy up and down the line. So in a way they are like gunslingers, but they're also like the celebrity athletes who had begun to emerge by this point in history. Riding the rails, or driving men off them, is more a matter of mythic prowess than survival.

Emperor has very little social consciousness for a Depression film. It may not be fair to compare it with Wild Boys of the Road, which has a different agenda, but the stakes for Cigarette, the youngster of the story, never seem as high as they are for the teenagers forced onto the rails in William Wellman's film. The train bosses in the earlier movie are mostly no more merciful than Shack is in Emperor, but in Wild Boys they're pretty much faceless cogs in an unjust system, while Shack (why am I tempted to spell that with a q?) is the indisputable villain of the Aldrich film. There's no sense that Shack is just doing his job, albeit overzealously and with too much relish, and there's never a moment that reveals any special motive for his meanness. The trailer simply calls him "evil," though "sadistic" may be the better term. For Borgnine, this kind of part is a throwback to the brute villain roles that first made his name in the 1950s, and he plays the part with the necessary gusto. But the limitations of Shack's character, no fault of Borgnine's, show the limits of the film's ambitions.

That doesn't mean you can't enjoy Emperor for the oldschool he-man action film it is. The climactic fight between Borgnine and Marvin may not live up to the hype that dubbed it "the most sensational fight ever filmed" (and this was the year of Enter the Dragon) but it's an impressive piece of direction and acting. It looks like it was all done by the two actors on a moving train, with no process shots that I could recognize. Axes, chains, hammers and two-by-fours all come into play and the middle-aged stars wield them with vigor. If anything, it goes on for too long. Each actor gets the upper hand at one point, only to spare his foe so the fight can continue for fighting's sake. These should have been more ruthless men, but the pulp nature of the story requires the fight to last longer.

Keith Carradine takes a hammer to the head (above). He could have done worse (below).

The film itself might have been shorter if shorn of some pointless digressions into ham-handed comedy. One bit I could do without is when cop Simon Oakland chases Carradine into a hobo jungle and gets forced to call a turkey a dog and bark like a dog in friendship. Slightly less obnoxiousness is a scene that could have gone into O Brother Where Art Thou? in which Marvin submits to baptism and gets to ogle a bra-less convert while Carradine steals clothes from the other believers. But the most pointless part of the picture is the prologue, which is basically a music video for the theme song, "A Man and a Train," in which Marty Robbins reveals the gnostic truth that "a man is not a train and a train is not a man." Hal David did the dubious lyrics, but the music, like that of the whole film, is by the dreadful Frank DeVol, whose interchangeable stylings marred many a Seventies film. DeVol is incapable of establishing mood and his music makes Emperor more of a chore to sit through than it should be. But fans of Marvin and Borgnine should definitely make the effort.

Here's the trailer, uploaded by unseentrailers, whose vocation belies his name:

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Here's a teamup of Alain Delon and Charles Bronson circa 1968, just as Once Upon A Time in the West finally elevated the latter to global stardom. Bronson is clearly still the subordinate actor, though you couldn't tell that from the cover art on the Lionsgate DVD. Delon doesn't even appear on the front, though he still has top billing. The film apparently didn't even hit America until 1973, after Bronson finally caught fire here. It's a curious item with some interesting action that's distinguished mainly by what I took to be a streak of misogyny that may reflect the attitudes of its original target audience.

Delon and Bronson are demobilized military men returning to civilian life after a tour of duty in Algeria. Delon's a doctor and Bronson wants him to sign on as a medic for some sort of mercenary unit that he's forming. Delon finds him an annoyance and decks him when Bronson suggests that his share of the payout could be bigger if fewer men survive. Bronson's a persistent character, however, and one who finds odd ways of making money. We see him as a procurer for a depraved old man who wants to play with a living doll for Christmas. He uses the "doll" as a game piece for some sort of strip roulette on a rotating platform in a parking garage before they get down to the real weirdness, during which he steals some petty cash and fights his way out of the building.

Meanwhile, Delon has gotten entangled with a woman who met him at Marseilles asking for word of a fellow soldier named Mozart. Delon says he's never heard of the man, but ends up involved with the lady anyway. She helps him get a job as an office physician so he can break into the office and replace some bonds of hers in a corporate safe. This place gets some hefty payrolls regularly, and that attracts Bronson's attention. He assumes that Delon is intending to rob the safe and wants in. He gets in, too. He and Delon find themselves trapped in an un-air-conditioned basement after brawling in the corridors. They have to figure a way out before they're found in the morning, and here is where they finally bond, Delon explaining that he knew Mozart all along -- had in fact killed him accidentally in Algeria -- and was fulfilling a debt to the man by helping out his girlfriend. Bronson is briefly aghast at the idea, but he understands that for Delon the alternative was unacceptable: he'd be a "dancer," someone who doesn't live up to his word. That can get you in trouble, but as Bronson says, it's hard to tell friends from enemies, or even to separate them. Consider the burning bonds they're using for torches overnight. On the one hand, they give light; on the other, they're using up the oxygen in their room.

After they smash their way out, Delon realizes (voila!) that he's been set up to take the fall for a robbery and murder. Now he and Bronson have a mutual interest in not getting framed for the crimes. Bronson is caught in a train station chase while Delon escapes, and the American shows his honorable side by refusing to rat Delon out despite the third degree. That leaves Delon free to crack the case, which shouldn't be too hard. Setting things right and staying alive may prove more difficult, however....

Some reviewers have gotten a weird vibe from the male bonding between Delon and Bronson and the negative attitude toward women director Jean Herman and writer Sebastien Japrisot express. The lead actress, Olga Georges-Picot, is a kind of femme fatale, but so in a less obvious way is Brigette Fossey as the boss's daughter who's assigned to Delon as a secretary. She starts off quite mousy and seems incapable of looking Delon in the eye; he cures this by kissing her. Later, she shelters him and behaves quite submissively, serving him meals like a maid. Later yet, hoping to stop him from taking her back to the building, she makes a bizarre series of promises to him.

Fossey: Let's go far away, anywhere! I know how to cook spaghetti. I'll let you smoke Papa's cigars. I love you. I'll pass my exams. I'll read Shakespeare. I'll learn to make love very well, but please, let's not go there!

Something may be lost in translation (Delon seems to be doing his own English dialogue, by the way), but this speech had to be weird in the original. In any event, Fossey turns out to be in cahoots with Georges-Picot, with whom she makes a desperate last-ditch escape attempt with an empty gun. How in cahoots are they? Are they lesbians, or is that just an assumption we're more likely to make today? This PG rated film offers no proof, but the women's partnership, combined with the passive depravity on display in the "doll" sequence (in which another woman, presumably the old man's daughter, joins in the ogling) suggests Herman and Japrisot as candidates for the He-Man Woman Haters Club.

Adieu L'Ami is no classic, but it's a mostly effective, efficient thriller in the cool, unaffected French style. It's a potboiler compared with Jean-Pierre Melville's films, but it has just enough action and just enough panache to hold your attention to the end. Delon is his typical self and Bronson seems to enjoy his antihero role. This is the earliest appearance I know of of the mustachioed, thicker-haired Bronson who would become a Seventies icon. That might make it a milestone unless someone knows of an earlier makeover. I would definitely recommend the film mainly to Bronson fans, though Delon's followers will probably also dig it.

Here's the French trailer:

Friday, September 25, 2009


Taking an optimistic view of man's progress in space exploration, Ishiro Honda imagines a full-scale orbiting space station in full operation in the year 1965, six years in the future from the time he made this film for Toho Studios. And like many a cinema fantasist, he imagines this modest incursion into space attracting hostile attention from alien powers. The culprits this time hail from the planet Natal (or is that an especially advanced region of South Africa?) and they blow up the space station as a prelude to subjugating the Earth. They just made a big mistake.

Natal may be ahead of Earth in space flight, but our side, spearheaded by Japan, is about to take the lead in weapons of mass destruction. The Natalies started throwing their weight around just as we've perfected a wave-motion dingus that "produces a narrowband energy radiation of the order of 600 megatherms. At maximum output it will fire continuously for 20,000 hours with a single charge of plutonium." This is a game changer. A hand-held dingus of this sort, we'll learn, can knock a flying saucer out of the sky. Large artillery-type dinguses are sure to wreak havoc on any alien armada that sticks its collective nose in our atmosphere.

But don't count Natal out just yet. The aggressors have a few tricks up their sleeves, --presuming the existence of Natal sleeves, of course. Their trump card is a kind of freeze ray that'll take you down to absolute zero, rendering the target entirely motionless. As scientists explain, that means that the mere motion of the earth will throw anything thus frozen straight up into the air, with calamitous results. But their real ace in the hole may be their ability to control the minds of humans. Throw in some freaky sound effects and a Natal dude doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation and a man will do your bidding. Such a fate befalls Dr. Achmed, who is compelled to try and steal the secret of the wave-motion dingus. It will later befall Iwomura, one of the eighteen elite scientists sent to the Moon in two advanced "Spip" rockets to find the secret Natal base and wreck it.

Iwomura works up quite a bit of sabotage while under Natal control, buy his exploits expose a limit to the Natal strategy. It looks like they can't ever control more than one human at a time. Or maybe they never thought of doing more than one at once. Really, couldn't they control everybody? Or are we to understand that Achmed and Iwomura were particularly weak-minded people? But who's the weak-minded species. after all. Remember that freeze ray I mentioned earlier in the paragraph? For all we know, the Natalies themselves (who despite the deep voices look like Oompa Loompas in spacesuits) forgot that they had it for most of the picture. We see them use it early on almost as a prank, levitating a railway bridge just in time for a train to drop into a ravine, only to drop it back into place. Then it comes into play again in the last act of the film, when it wreaks havoc in Tokyo while New York is subject to a more conventional attack. Natal could just as easily have been using this devastating device through all the time that our heroes are scurrying about on the moon and destroying the invasion base. But no; just when you think the picture's going to end at the 72 minute mark or thereabouts the underachieving Natalies get a second wind and start going to town on our cities. But it's too late by then, because Earth is armed to the teeth with wave-motion death for alien scum, and all Natal has done is make humanity mad....

To be honest, neither plot nor characterization was given much thought in this project. Two of our astronauts are in love with each other and that's about as deep as this picture goes. Iwomura betrays his crewmates under alien control and sacrifices his life redeeming himself, and that's about the biggest acting challenge in the whole affair. Battle in Outer Space (so Columbia Pictures called it; Toho called it Great War in Space) is a pure showcase for Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, and they make the most of it, displaying the strengths and weaknesses of Toho special effects. Many of the moon and space scenes are spectacular; Toho went to some trouble putting together detailed moon sets to match the models through which moon cars would roll and saucers fly. Anytime they don't have to swing their model ships across a bright background, the illusion of spaceflight is actually quite convincing and the compositions take full advantage of the Toho Scope wide screen. The sets and models have a multiplane quality that creates a strong impression of distance and depth. There are very effective scenes when the human explorers catch glimpses of saucers in the distance emerging into view between mountain peaks. Overall, the moon scenes have some of the best effects I've ever seen from Toho.

On the other hand, Toho often has trouble convincing you that their models have weight or true massiveness. The Natal moonbase is singularly unimpressive; its bright primary colors make it look like a pile of toddler's toys. As you'll notice, the model Manhattan simply won't do. At least in the freeze ray attack on Tokyo the inventive weirdness of the cityscape getting flung upward, with unhappy people in the midst of it, distracts you from the pure flimsiness of the models. Even in these cases, though, you can respect the craftsmanship of the Toho crew on an aesthetic level that goes beyond the model's effectiveness as effects. It's hard for me to know whether scenes that look wrong to a western eye are just wrong or just express the aesthetic choices of another culture. But the overall art direction here often look good even when they also look wrong.

Speaking of another culture, here's another picture in which Tokyo is devastated. The knee-jerk reaction is to note once more a lingering Japanese memory of nuclear attack, but I see something more than that in Battle in Outer Space. The devastating attack, after all, is just one round of several, many of which go to the Japanese-inspired Earth in a fight that ends in a knockout victory for the good guys. We've been trained to read Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and the Tokyo fire bombings and all the rest) into films like this, but shouldn't we also read into it the unresolved anticipation, still remembered by many of the people who first saw this movie, of an American invasion of Japan? When a giant monster or an alien power splatters Tokyo, it's supposed to signify that nukes are bad. But the giant monsters and aliens invariably lose.

As Toho's vision grew decadent the giant monsters themselves would save Japan or the world from aliens or other giant monsters. But in the early years people could take care of themselves quite nicely despite some major setbacks. Couldn't films like Battle in Outer Space be saying, perhaps subliminally, that in spite of the A-bomb, Japan could have licked the Allies in a real fight had it come to an invasion? That may not sound plausible, but these are fantasy films, and as well as expressing dread, guilt, etc., they may also show a symbolic chip on Japanese shoulders. I don't mean that as a reproach to the Japanese. Seeing this particular movie this way makes it more interesting, maybe more cool and perhaps a more meaningful artifact of Japanese pop culture.

Here's what Baradagi1985 calls a trailer for the Columbia release of Battle in Outer Space, but my hunch is that it's actually a TV commercial:

Meanwhile, CCZilla has uploaded the more colorful Japanese trailer for Uchu Daisenso.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


"Children of camels! Offsprings of Donkeys! Paint your foolish faces! Dress your ugly bodies to deceive the Mongols! This time we enter the palace!"
-Andy Devine

n history, the Mongols ruled the region today known as Iraq for close to 200 years from the time that Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258. Arthur Lubin's film for Universal Pictures asserts to the contrary, however, that the Mongol occupation lasted for approximately ten years. This follow-up to the Technicolor smash Arabian Nights, reuniting romantic leads Jon Hall and Maria Montez, views the Mongol regime through the lens of similarly set fantasy films, and its style and structure are also influenced by heroic bandit films from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Jesse James, not to mention operetta films of the sort that sometimes featured romantic bandit heroes, as well as World War II resistance stories. Seen that way, it could be called the Inglourious Basterds of its time. It even has a rather theatrical climax with a Busby Berkeley style number with sword-dancing Mongol warriors and the ahistorical assassination of the head of state.

The film starts in that fateful year, 1258, when the heroic Caliph prepared to make his escape from Baghdad and start a resistance to the Mongol invader. But he is betrayed by Prince Cassim and killed. His son Ali, not yet a teenager, escapes in the confusion, but is believed to be drowned. He wanders into the mountainous dessert only to stumble across the secret entrance to the cave of "the Thieves" (so called, I suppose, because no one else dares steal in Mesopotamia) just as the famous phrase of command "Open Oh Sesame!" (get it right, people!) unleashes the gang for another raid. Ali quickly memorizes the magic words and settles into the Thieves' lair, only to be found asleep by the mob, who pretty much adopt him.

Jon Hall (left) and Turhan Bey (right); below, the Thieves.

By the time he reaches burly manhood, "Ali Baba" (Hall), the surrogate son of head thief Baba, is for all intents and purposes head of the Thieves, who have become the only effective resistance force in the region despite their all-too-obvious red turbans and other distinctive costumes. He sneaks into Baghdad one fine day and meets cute with the Princess Amara (Montez), daughter of the traitor Cassim, neither realizing that this is the second time they've met cute in the picture. As kids, in the opening scene, they had swapped bodily fluids (just blood, folks) and pledged faith to each other, but neither recognizes the other as adults. Cassim is trying to marry Amara off to Hulagu Khan to secure his position in the Mongol court, but even before she realizes his true identity, Amara finds herself attracted to the Hollywood handsome brigand. I think you can take the plot from there....

For years the Hall-Montez films were seen as the epitome of cinematic camp. I suppose that results from their guileless indifference to either history or plausibility and the staggering oddities of casting. In Arabian Nights, for instance, Sindbad the Sailor, admittedly a supporting character, was played by Shemp Howard. Here, Ali Baba's right-hand man is portrayed by Andy Devine, usually a comic-relief Western type. The casting is so indiscriminate when it comes to ethnicity that we have two characters who grew up together as small tykes and still live in the same country, yet speak either with a thick Latin accent (Montez) or not (Hall). The closest we get to authentic casting that I know of is the half-Turkish Turhan Bey as a juvenile servant of Amara and ally of Ali Baba. But as I understand it the true locus of camp in these films is Montez, and hers is a camp performance both in her frequent resort to outlandishly inauthentic fashions (check out her Forties-vintage shoulder pads) and her ability to read her often-ridiculous lines straightfacedly, perhaps without fully understanding what they mean. To be honest, I don't get it about her. She's attractive enough, but not the dazzling goddess some hype might suggest, and she is overall a little too modestly clothed in this particular picture to make the impression I expected.

Andy Devine (or is that Divine?) in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

But Ali Baba is a fun picture exactly because it is only concerned with entertainment. It has nothing at all on its pretty, empty little mind except what you project on it. It must have appealed to all the pulp readers out there who still dug "Arabian Nights" style fantasies of sultans and harems, and for whom the closing scene of a hero raising the banner of Islam over Baghdad caused no anxiety whatsoever. I suppose it's a racist film in the sense of excluding true Arabs or Asians from the cast, but at the same time it has that paradoxical effect of making you think of Arabs, at least, as just like you and me, only much more exotically attired. Movies with such settings used to be a commonplace of Hollywood, as were films from all sorts of adventurous periods of history, They are less common now, either because modern standards of authenticity impose prohibitive costs, or because studios are convinced that no one cares anymore about most of the past. I miss the diversity of subject matter that existed even when you could still watch movies like this on TV on a random day. Seeing Universal release these films on brilliantly garish DVDs inspires nearly as much nostalgia in me as they might in people who first saw these movies 65 years ago.

And here's the trailer you won't see on the DVD, uploaded to YouTube by BluDirect:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

24 HOURS TO KILL (1965)

One of the most jarring moments in Fernando Di Leo's Milano Calibro 9 comes when the hero's girlfriend, assuming that he has the loot the mob's accused him of stealing, suggests that they take the money and run away ... to Beirut. A modern viewer's first response has to be "BEIRUT???" but it must be remembered that Di Leo's film was made before Lebanon really fell apart and Beirut became a byword for urban guerrilla warfare. Now here's a film made earlier still, produced by the late, great Harry Alan Towers, filmed largely in Swinging Lebanon back in the day.

The situation is simple. An Athens-bound jetliner has to make an emergency landing in Beirut due to technical trouble. The crew and passengers will have to remain there for 24 hours while repairs are made. For some of the crew, this means looking up the Beirut listings in the proverbial little directory of loose women. For the captain, Jaimie Faulkner (Lex Barker) it means an opportunity for a quick bit of tourism with his stewardess girlfriend. For fellow crewmember Norman "Jonesy" Jones (Mickey Rooney) it means nothing but trouble. The crew knows Jonesy as a stalwart, reliable guy. It's he who pacifies the situation during the emergency when a frantic Arab woman rushes the cockpit (talk about your accidental contemporary relevance). But once they're in Beirut he gets all nervous and shifty, desperate to have people around him at all times. And with some reason, too. People are watching him, and for good reason on their part, as the rest of the crew will learn to their chagrin once Jonesy's past naughtiness with some 40,000 Pounds of gold puts them all in danger.

The gun turns out to be a gag, but that doesn't mean Mickey Rooney shouldn't worry during his 24 Hours to Kill.

Peter Bezencenet's film feels like a Eurospy film without any of the fancy gadgets or much of the action. The movie's a bit less action-packed than it ought to be, which means it had better be acting-packed to compensate. The burden falls on our two leads and on Walter Slezak as the fez-clad villain. Rooney is up for the task, of course; he does frantic well. Meanwhile, I continue to be impressed by Lex Barker's work in European films. I found him a lackluster Tarzan, but once he crossed the Atlantic I've liked him in just about everything I've seen, from La Dolce Vita to Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. I make no great claims for him as an actor, but he brings an almost unconscious charisma and natural authority to any movie he turns up in. He and Rooney make a good Mutt and Jeff act in this film as Faulkner grows increasingly perturbed and Jonesy increasingly untrustworthy.

Lex Barker negotiates with Walter Slezak (above), then with some of his aides (below).

The film's main visual virtue is its travelogue of Lebanon before the deluge. The story's twenty-four hours give the characters time to visit picturesque ruins at Baalbek and Byblos, and a good deal of the story seems to have been filmed on the streets of Beirut. I can't vouch, however, for the scenes shot at "the gayest place in Beirut," but the film does credit the dance troupe of the Casino de Liban, so the can-canning and suchlike we see may well be authentic.

Lebanon old and new in 24 Hours to Kill. Well, it was new 44 years ago.

Bezencenet is competent without being particularly stylish, and while the film is full of incident it doesn't quite develop the dramatic momentum it should. Finally, the ending is quite anticlimactic; it's the sort of finish that might work if this were a short story in a pulp magazine, but Towers, writing under his "Peter Welbeck" alias, lets audiences leave with a final impression that 24 Hours to Kill was rather a dull affair. For fans of the actors or the decade, or for virtual tourists of the past like myself, it really isn't so dull, but it is, overall, an underinspired if not completely uninspired film that I'd only risk recommending to the sort of enthusiasts I just mentioned.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

IL BOSS (1973):"Family Doesn't Matter."

It's been claimed that Fernando Di Leo's use of an interracial team of hitmen in La Mala Ordina (aka Man Hunt) inspired Quentin Tarantino's casting of Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. If so, then is it possible that the climax of Inglourious Basterds begins with the opening of the third film of Di Leo's so-called "Milieu" trilogy? Consider: a mystery man sneaks into a building where important men are arriving. His destination: a projection booth where he cows the projectionist into compliance. The mystery man is Henry Silva. The projectionist pleads for mercy.

Projectionist: Jesus, don't shoot!
Silva: He won't....Only he doesn't like skin flicks.
Projectionist: Jesus, my god!
Silva: He's not coming, so just keep quiet!

An elite audience of criminals has gathered to watch porno films. "That goes to show that not all Swedes are natural blonds," one comments as they watch the unseen show. Above and behind them, Silva sets himself to work. His weapon is a grenade launcher. He fires into the screening room.

He fires three times more, then uses a fifth grenade on a guard who comes running in at the wrong time. This is carnage above and beyond Di Leo's two previous films, and a police official will later equate the violence with the Vietnam War. "I'll bet they'll be using tanks soon," he remarks. This sets the tone for Il Boss, a devastating deconstruction of the crime film genre, dispensing even with the one sympathetic protagonist you can find in either Milano Calibro 9 or La Mala Ordina.

Silva plays Nick Lanzetta, a hitman and orphan who was for all intents and purposes adopted by Don Giuseppe Daniello, an underling of Don Corrasco (Richard Conte). They've sent Nick to destroy Don Attardi, who collaborated with interlopers from Calabria in selling hard drugs in Sicily when they were only supposed to pass through on the way to foreign parts. It turns out that I was wrong in assuming that all three Milieu films took place in Milan, since Il Boss plays out in Palermo, where, ironically, the Sicilians despised elsewhere in Italy look down on the Calabrians. That attitude extends to the Palermo police, represented by Commisario Torre (Gianni "Sartana" Garko). The Calabrians, represented by gang leader Cocchi, despise the Sicilians in return.

Cocchi: We're just rag-ass peasants to you! I know, if a man has nothing, Commisario, life is very simple. So my men will take risks that you'll never take. They've nothing to lose.
Torre: Bravo, Cocchi, bravo! Apparently you've become Maoist.

Again, Di Leo introduces social and political context that's often absent from crime or poliziotteschi films. On this occasion, he also overturns the tough-cop archetype of the poliziotteschis, since Garko's cop, who comes on strong as he interrupts the mourning for the porno movie victims, turns out to be a piccione, an informant for Don Giuseppe and Don Corrasco. It amused me to see the actor I identify with one of the ultimate badass spaghetti western heroes playing a complete weasel, a twisted authoritarian who blames the current chaos in Palermo on the government's exiling the old Mafia leaders. "It's just that there's no discipline," he argues at one point, "We need order, even if it's Mafia order." Adapting a novel, Il Mafioso, by Peter McCurtin, Di Leo subverts the typically reactionary stance of Italian cinema cops by putting an explicitly reactionary cop on the side of equally reactionary crime bosses.

By the time Di Leo is done, all ideas of authority and loyalty are pretty much dashed. The main plot of the film involves the kidnapping of Don Giuseppe's daughter Rina by Cocchi's men as revenge for the movie bombing. Cocchi wants Giuseppe to give himself up in return for his daughter, and the old man is willing, but Don Corrasco forbids it. Compromising in any way with Cocchi is unacceptable; that goes for paying ransom as well. This is when Corrasco tells Giuseppe that "family doesn't matter." But which family is he talking about? Isn't the Mafia made up of families? Indeed, the Mafia family takes precedence. "Nothing is yours," he tells Giuseppe, "not even your daughter, not when it endangers your family and the organization." After sending Giuseppe away, he instructs Nick to kill Giuseppe, his surrogate father, if he attempts to negotiate separately with Cocchi. In time, Giuseppe will urge Nick to disregard the order. Despite Nick's assertion that "Don Corrasco is God," Giuseppe insists that Corrasco has no right to dismiss Rina's likely death as "the will of God." He finally convinces Nick to see things his way and to set up a ransom payment, or so we think until the time of the scheduled rendezvous, when Nick kills Giuseppe as ordered, along with Giuseppe's right-hand man. In this scene, Silva conveys the death of a man's soul; you can see the self-loathing in his eyes as he embraces his victim and his own betrayal of the nearest thing he ever had to real family. Just as Mario Adorf successfully portrayed two different characters for Di Leo in Calibro 9 and Mala Ordina, Silva accomplishes the same feat in Mala Ordina and this film.

Meanwhile, Rina has also been betraying her father's honor. He's paying her way through college, where she's become a frivolous student radical, a drug user, and a tramp. It takes little more than one glass of booze to get her fraternizing with her captors, notwithstanding their threat that "you're gonna get laid until your feet come." Apparently that would be fine with her. And when Nick finally rescues her, after killing her father and pocketing his ransom money, she just as carelessly shacks up with him in his dismal porno-papered bachelor pad in a relationship of bodily satisfaction and mutual contempt. "You just screw baby, don't think," he advises her. He's disgusted by her lack of feeling when he finally tells her that her father's dead, but she answers with contempt for a father who was nothing but a criminal. Family really does mean nothing.

As Rina, Antonia Santilli submits for inspection, but from then on its pretty much consensual all the way.

Nor does it mean anything to Don Corrasco, who yields pretty quickly to political pressure to make peace with Cocchi by throwing Nick under the bus and setting up Torre to kill him. That guarantees that family will finally mean nothing to Nick, since the film will climax with his outright rebellion against the Don. But there are betrayals yet to come beyond the climax, and never has it been so bleak a moment when a movie closes not with the word "Fine," but with "Continua."

Gianni Garko negotiates with Richard Conte (above) and Henry Silva (below), not exactly from a position of strength in either case.

Il Boss is a soul-crushing film, and I mean that as a good thing. It's a movie of nihilistic moral cruelty that indicts cops, criminals and civilians alike, leaving no one for audience identification unless the audience suffers from collective low self-esteem. Our putative hero is really a scumbag, but who's any better? At least in Nick's case you can see that he was brought up in a certain quasi-moral system built on certain premises that are suddenly all kicked out from under him. None of the conventional escape routes in genre fiction (the police, the love of a good woman) are available to him. He can only keep doing what he's been doing, which is to exterminate all the brutes until somebody maybe takes him out someday. The fact that Nick is the only one of the trilogy's protagonists to survive gives us an idea of the larger point Di Leo is making.

The story of Il Boss is hellish enough, but why not include a literal metaphor for Hell in the form of a fiery furnace in which the mobsters deposit victims, dead or alive?
Luis Enriquez Bacalov is back after skipping La Mala Ordina with a score that's less classical but more forceful and percussive to fit the brutality of Il Boss. As usual, the location work is outstanding and the action sequences get to the point without overstated choreography. There's nothing here to compare with the amazing chase scene in Mala Ordina but the overall effect is more overwhelming than the earlier film, which fizzles a little once the chase is over. In closing, Il Boss is just about equal to Milano Calibro 9, though the two bookend films of the trilogy differ profoundly in tone. Calibro 9 is really a classical noir with pulp vitality, while Boss is like the Ran of the Italian crime genre in its despairing portrait of moral chaos. Having now seen all three films, I can say more confidently that the Milieu films deserve mention alongside Coppola's Godfather films and Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, not necessarily as equals in quality but as a like-minded project of deromanticizing the crime genre, and perhaps with a similar, possibly unintended effect of re-romanticizing it for the next generation. They definitely set the standard for all other Seventies crime films from Italy, and any enthusiast for Italian cinema should enjoy all three.

Here's the Italian trailer again, which rightfully boasts of Di Leo's past work and promotes Il Boss as if it really was the culmination of a trilogy rather than the open-ended affair the film itself claims to be.