Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE 300 SPARTANS (1961)

Here's a film I really wanted to like. I was rooting for Rudolph Mate's movie, shot on location in Greece and unenhanced by computer graphics, to be better than the other movie about the Battle of Thermopylae, Zack Snyder's 300. I wanted The 300 Spartans to be the better film because I found 300 a profoundly distasteful film. There's something really unpleasant about Frank Miller's representation of the Persian Empire and his fetishization of Spartans in the original graphic novel. Miller and Snyder try to excuse their images by saying that they represent a "tall tale" subjective Spartan viewpoint of the conflict, but that doesn't hide the fact that the images came from Miller's own mind and portray a pretty-much racist vision of the East as the realm of despotism, decadence and depravity. Obviously the Persians have to be the bad guys in any version of this story, but that doesn't mean that Miller and Snyder had to turn them into monsters and mutants. It's also pretty galling to anyone who knows ancient history to see the Spartans presented as champions of freedom without any mention of all the helots ground under their collective heel. I was once a Frank Miller fan but I don't think he's done anything good since about the second Sin City graphic novel, and a lot of his recent stuff is just sick. Meanwhile, The 300 Spartans is the work of Mate, director of great films like D.O.A., Union Station and The Violent Men, and cinematographer of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr. So I wanted to be able to say: here's the real Spartan movie for anyone who wants the real story without all the cartoon trappings.

Not only did The 300 Spartans disappoint me on that score, but it ended up giving me a new appreciation of 300's qualities. Snyder, falling under Miller's spell as Robert Rodriguez did, made an expressionistic film as an act of fidelity to Miller's panels. To my taste he often errs on the side of exaggeration, but I can't dispute that he invests nearly every frame with an energy and enthusiasm that is usually absent from Mate's movie. Mate has one great advantage over Snyder, at least as far as I'm concerned, and that's the Greek locations. He makes good use of them at times, as when he decorates a hillside with colorful Persian tents, but his direction doesn't do the landscape justice. His extras too often act just like extras, if "act" is the right word for it, and his world-historical battles include a lot of half-hearted milling about. 300 has spoiled me to an extent because Mate simply hasn't enough extras to fill the scenery the way Snyder and his technicians can. And if you're going to follow the Greek historians and say that the Persians were invading with millions of men, any feeling that the landscape is underpopulated is fatal. Might I have felt differently had I seen The 300 Spartans (hereafter 300S) first? Possibly, but I think the battle scenes would look lackluster anyway.

What about the story? For starters, Mate and his writers appear to agree with Miller and Snyder that Sparta's history with the helots is best left unmentioned. So be it: neither film is about the history of Sparta. If anything, despite embedding "Sparta" in the title, 300S is less about Sparta than 300 is. The later film is a showcase for Miller's conception of the Spartan warrior and the warrior type in general. 300S is more about Greece as a whole than Sparta in particular, and the difference has something to do with contemporary politics. The script is an allegory on the need for different countries to unite against the 20th century version of Eastern despotism, Communism. Arguably, Sparta represents the United States, and many Spartans are played by American actors in contrast to Sir Ralph Richardson as an Athenian ally. Spartans are portrayed as a more pious people than other Greeks, even when it puts them at a disadvantage. In both films, as in history, King Leonidas (Richard Egan in 300S) can only bring his personal bodyguard to Thermopylae because Spartans are obliged to observe a religious festival. While Miller and Snyder scoff at the superstitious imposition, 300S has Leonidas affirm that Spartans respect the gods no matter what. More importantly, though, while some Spartans question allying with less pious Athenians or other Greeks, Leonidas plays the Greek nationalist, stressing the need for unity in defense of freedom. Mate's team has an analogy in mind with lingering American isolationism or distrust of "decadent" Europe. You could even argue that the Athenian Themistocles's maneuver to give control over his own fleet to Leonidas symbolizes the British accepting American leadership in the common defense of Europe or the "Free World."

There's another American parallel that might have been more obvious to moviegoers at the time. 300S appears the year after John Wayne's The Alamo, and the expected success of the Duke's peculiar blockbuster may have inspired the making of our movie. In at least one instance the film seems to imitate The Alamo, when Leonidas launches a night raid against the Persian camp.

So far, so-so. I've only been describing thematic details. What really disappointed me about 300S, apart from the weak looking battle scenes, is the acting and the halfhearted melodramatic additions to the Thermopylae story. Casting Richard Egan as Leonidas takes the American analogy too far, since he comes across more as a cattle baron than a king. There are moments when he does demonstrate Laconic authority, particularly a wordless bit when he surveys the battlefield for the first time. I also appreciate that he never screams like a bass Dalek as Gerard Butler sometimes does. But Egan gives Leonidas no real personality apart from generic stalwart heroism. Despite his limitations, he comes across like Ralph Richardson compared to the romantic leads, Barry Coe and Diane Baker. These two form the sort of couple that comes on to sing ballads in the middle of Marx Bros. movies. Coe, a 1960 Golden Globe winner as Most Promising Newcomer, betrays that promise here with awful line readings and just plain awful lines like, "Hey, this is a great battle!" He's a Spartan who's in disgrace because his father's in the Persian camp. She's his spunky girlfriend who demonstrates some of the legendary athleticism of Spartan women by limply ju-jitsuing him when he gets too frisky.

Diane Baker and Barry Coe as 300S's loser lovers. Below, Ephialtes (Kieron Moore) makes his move before Baker kicks his butt in demure, ladylike fashion.

She does the same to her other suitor, Ephialtes the traitor. Frank Miller envisioned him as a role fit for Lon Chaney Sr., a disgruntled hunchback who betrays Sparta because Leonidas won't let him fight in the phalanx. In 300S, he's a dumb lummox of a shepherd who gets the hots for Diane Baker's character when she has to recuperate in his master's house. He goes straight from getting ju-jitsued by her to the Persian camp as if getting rejected by a girl was enough to make him betray his country. This is where the writers' halfheartedness comes in. They've set up a rivalry for the girl between Ephialtes and Coe's character, but they don't play it out. Give this situation to Cecil B. DeMille and he'd have Ephialtes insist on the girl as part of his reward from the Persians. He'd then have Coe, whose character has been sent home by Leonidas, infiltrate the Persian camp to rescue Baker and fight Ephialtes to the death. That's my hunch, at least. Nothing like this happens in 300S. Ephialtes gets his reward and doesn't even get rebuked by Leonidas as in 300. The boy and girl are sent away before the final battle. What was the point of having this hapless couple in the movie if they're not going to be involved in the climax? That's easy: they're there for what used to be called "heart interest," to have a love story to keep the women in the audience interested through all the boring military stuff. That's the sort of general-audience thinking that makes a hodgepodge of superfluous stuff out of many a classical Hollywood film. By comparison, in 300 Snyder kept the women (at least) interested by expanding Queen Gorgo's role and having her kill somebody with a sword. Score another one for 300.

You've got to have dancing girls in a movie like this one.

There are other loose ends in 300S because of its expanded scope. Mate introduces the historical character of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, an ally of Persia and admiral of her own fleet, as a romantic interest for King Xerxes, and the strategic storyline seems to be setting her up for a naval showdown with Themistocles's Athenian fleet at Salamis. The movie leaves you waiting for the other shoe that never drops; there's no payoff whatsoever to Artemisia's presence in the movie. The character is in there just to be another pretty face, but since when does Xerxes of all people (played by the once-mighty David Farrar of Black Narcissus fame) need a romantic interest? This is typical of the film's unfocused approach to its essential subject matter.

Both Thermopylae movies insult the intelligence, though in different ways. Choosing between 300 and The 300 Spartans is a trade-off between psychosis and cliche, with neither really getting to the heart of the history that makes the tale worth telling. But while Mate's film is mainly a perfunctory genre exercise, 300 is at least about something, whether we like it or not. 300S is of historic interest in its own right as a Cold War era reading of the Persian Wars and will be preferred by those even more averse to Miller in CGI than I. Judging the two films in simplest cinematic terms, however, Snyder's is the better movie, if not necessarily a good one. That's not what I expected to say, but I have to call them as I see them.

The trailer for The 300 Spartans was uploaded to YouTube by FirouzanFilms

National Film Registry Class of 2009

The 25 newest members of the American film canon as defined by the Library of Congress have just been announced. American film is defined broadly enough to include Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West this time around. Among the familiar names in the new list are, in chronological order, the Tyrone Power Mark of Zorro, William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver, William Wellman's Story of G.I. Joe, Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man, Rock and Doris's Pillow Talk, Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and, of all things, The Muppet Movie. Also included, perhaps for sentimental reasons, is Michael Jackson's Thriller video, though a case can obviously be made for its historical significance. As usual, there's a good share of art and documentary cinema. Someone should gather this stuff together in one place and make it available for on-demand viewing, or else broadcast it in a marathon that'd actually be worth watching. Read the list yourselves and feel free to share your opinions.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Despite two directors and Hal Roach looking over his shoulder, Safety Last! is Harold Lloyd's show and the film that made him, by then already a star, an immortal. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are deemed Lloyd's masters, but the definitive image of American silent comedy is still Lloyd dangling from that clock on that building. It's but a moment in an uncanny twenty-minute climb that preserves its power to thrill pretty much undiluted after 86 years.

The climb eclipses the majority of the film, which is so archetypal a Lloyd story of striving for success that, despite being identified only as "The Boy" in the opening credits, a pay stub identifies him as "Harold Lloyd." Harold has gone to the big city to make good, and sends bits of jewelry home to his sweetheart, "The Girl," (Mildred Davis, the eventual Mrs. Lloyd) as boasts of his success. In reality he is sacrificing food and falling behind on his rent in order to buy the trinkets with his salary as a flustered fabric salesman in a department store. Eventually The Girl comes to visit and Harold must pretend that he holds a higher position.

Humiliated in his own eyes despite surviving his imposture, Harold is more desperate than ever to achieve some coup, and the chance comes when management wants a publicity stunt to promote the store. Harold's roommate (Bill Strother) is a prodigy as a climber, as Harold had seen when they both had to get away from an angry cop. He proposes having his roommate climb the store building to attract a crowd. If it goes over, he'll earn a $1,000 bonus. But just before the climb begins, the angry cop recognizes Harold's roommate and chases him inside the building. With the pressure on and his pal unavailable, Harold must climb the tower himself, with the roommate coaching him from floor to floor but always telling him to go one floor more "until I ditch the cop."

There's the clock, and there's Harold Lloyd. I will not show him dangling from it.

The climb has a kind of mathematical grandeur. It's a masterpiece of perspective, an exemplar of illusion grounded in reality. How it was done is well known. Harold is always as high up as he seems to be, but in any given shot he's climbing one of a series of facades constructed on rooftops. The stages of the climb are shot so that the street seems ever further down, and except for close-ups necessary for some gags you can always see the street. Harold is always a good distance above a saving pillow-padded platform and is clearly exerting himself with considerable strength and agility as he climbs the facades. He's doing this with roughly one and a half hands, having blown part of one away with a live "prop" bomb while posing for a publicity shot. After the fact, Lloyd said that if he'd held the bomb closer to his face he would have died. As for his chances on the Safety Last climb, he claimed that he tested the platform by dropping a dummy from one of the facades. It bounced high and fell off the roof.

While Bill Strother plays Harold's unreliable human-fly pal in the story, in real life he was the human fly who inspired the movie and did the heavy-duty climbing in long shots like the one below.

The pure thrill of the climb is leavened with more mundane comedy bits as Harold is beset by pigeons, a rat, a net, a dog, a hectoring old lady and a man posing, gun in hand, for a crime magazine cover. And on every floor his friend reliably appears to excuse himself for failing to shake the cop. None of this is exactly hilarious, but it does build up anticipation for what godforsaken thing The Boy might encounter next. And Lloyd tops it off with a tension-straining bit of business on the roof with some spinning doom device which is either a wind gauge or something meant only to hit human flies in the head. He knows what has to happen and the audience knows it, so he makes them wait, teasing the blow several times over before taking it and setting up the final, supposedly spectacular but actually anticlimactic gag in which Lloyd's stuntman swings from his heel through space. Nothing can top the spectacle of the climb.

So Safety Last! isn't the funniest silent comedy by any means. Nor does it come close to Lloyd's funniest films, among which I count Why Worry?, For Heaven's Sake and his pioneer fish-out-of-water sound film The Cat's Paw. But the climb is not so much a gag as a "chariot race" climax on the Ben Hur model, the term Merriam C. Cooper used to describe another climb up a building in King Kong. For want of a really definitive term, Harold Lloyd's climb is one of the greatest things you'll ever see in a movie.

Wendigo Meets THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

Made for TV though it is, John Llewellyn Moxey's film of Richard Matheson's script is a seminal Seventies film. It includes two key elements of the period: conspiracy in the form of the Las Vegas authorities' cover-up of vampirism in their midst, and vigilantism in the form of Carl Kolchak's defiance of the rule of law (not to mention the same authorities) in doing what's necessary to eliminate the vampiric menace. Before Jaws, The Night Stalker shows the government suppressing information crucial for public safety (at least in the hero's opinion) in part for the sake of preserving the tourist business. Before Death Wish, it has a hero willing to commit "murder" in the name of justice.

The Night Stalker is in the same small category of films as The Thin Man in which the title initially doesn't identify the hero but comes to be identified with him, so that Darren McGavin could eventually star in a series about Kolchak called The Night Stalker. The title notwithstanding, Moxey's film (the first of two that led up to the series, and once the highest-rated of all made-for-TV movies) is about Kolchak, who comes across as a slightly more benign version of Kirk Douglas's reporter from Ace in the Hole but is still a selfish, cynical, arguably alcoholic and slightly sleazy person, the sort who stands by snapping photos while a madman tosses cops about like rag dolls. He's a more credible, more skeptical character than the reflexively credulous, almost cartoon-like Kolchak of the weekly series, and it takes a realistic amount of time for him to start believing in what he ironically calls a "real live vampire."

But while Kolchak is the central character, my friend Wendigo considers The Night Stalker one of his favorite vampire films. That's because Janos Skorzeny is that rare vampire who is a completely unromanticized, purely evil monster. He's also a human-scale vampire with just enough strength to toss cops about like rag dolls, and not a creature of overdone makeup or transforming effects. He seems the sort you might find lurking just off the Strip in the Seventies. He's nobody's sexual fantasy nor anyone's fantasy of power. He could just as well have been the mere serial killer everyone initially takes him to be for story purposes.

Wendigo sees Skorzeny as the first really modern vampire in cinema. While I might claim that title for Count Yorga, Wendigo points out that Yorga is still above such mundane stuff as driving a car or haggling over prices that we see or hear about Skorzeny doing. Yorga is still a relatively Gothic figure, a master vampire living in a mansion. Skorzeny is almost a working-class vampire, content to take victims smash-and-grab style or to raid a hospital blood bank. He's also minimally supernatural. He can't transform into anything and it's unclear exactly how much he can mesmerize people. His sole advantage is his strength, apart from the longevity benefits that come from drinking blood, though he has the traditional (as of Nosferatu) vulnerability to sunlight. Wendigo thinks this actually brings Skorzeny closer to folklore vampires than his cinematic predecessors, but in a way that makes him a fresh presence in horror.

Kolchak is an often-disconcertingly passive observer of the mayhem around him, but takes a more aggressive part when his own life is at stake.

The odd thing for me about Skorzeny is the fact that he doesn't talk, even though we know he must be able to in order to negotiate for cars, houses, etc. Wendigo likes this because it further de-romanticizes the vampire by making him more sub-human or alien. This is one film in which you absolutely are not meant to identify with the vampire, and giving him nothing to say helps prevent that. While Yorga can sometimes be pretentious and plays a kind of cult guru in his second outing, Skorzeny is little more than an animal or a force of nature -- or as I might suggest, a stand in for all the apparently intractable criminality around us that should only be destroyed. The fact that we never learn how Skorzeny became a vampire also undercuts any romantic potential to the character; we have no cause to see him as a tragic creature, but only as a criminal who's preyed on people for at least thirty years.

Wendigo is definitely not hostile to romantic vampires; he likes Twilight, after all. But he likes the flexibility of the vampire motif, the fact that you can use it pretty much in any way imaginable, from one extreme to another. He has no preferred kind of vampire and won't say that one kind is right and another wrong. Instead, he's impressed by variety, and Skorzeny's minimalistic vampirism impresses him as much as many more fantastic or extravagant creatures. He also appreciates the way Night Stalker represents a change of pace for producer Dan Curtis, who pioneered the modern-day romantic vampire on Dark Shadows and would go on to do a very influential partially-romanticized Dracula with Jack Palance soon after.

Also very cool about The Night Stalker is the grungily-vivid footage of a now-vanished Las Vegas.

He isn't impressed by Skorzeny alone, of course. Along with Barry Atwater, our vampire, and star McGavin, The Night Stalker has a mighty cast of character actors, including veteran stalwarts like Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Simon Oakland, Charles McGraw and Elisha Cook Jr. They all bring idiosyncracy to their roles while remaining rooted in a real world. I thought Akins was a one-note blowhard here, but Wendigo defends his performance and his character as written because Matheson established his contempt for Kolchak as an "ambulance chaser." As a group (apart from Cook, a low-level gambler who helps Kolchak), they're all kind of bullheaded because they don't want to look like fools for believing in the supernatural. In the end, they prove stunningly ruthless in their suppression of the truth, and it's worth remembering that Vegas was still very much a mob town, at least in the popular imagination, at this time. The movie would have you think that they're actually having people killed, though that might leave you asking why they didn't whack Kolchak himself. Still, it anticipates much of Seventies cinema in its portrayal of a conspiracy triumphant regardless of the vampire's fate.

Like many TV movies from the Seventies, The Night Stalker differs from its cinematic counterparts only in lacking nudity, gore and cussing. Otherwise it's an energetic, admirably violent film that holds its own with cinematic vampire tales from the decade. For people who dislike today's romantic teeny vampires, Wendigo recommends this little gem as an antidote.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On the Big Screen: SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009)

If you are looking for a proper mystery plot, forget it. If you're looking for a film of Victorian manners, you'll be but partially satisfied. But for all the fuss about how much Guy Ritchie's new film is inappropriately an action film, it seems to me to partake of the spirit of popular literature from the period from which the original Holmes emerged. And I think that Robert Downey Jr. gets to the essence of the character as a brilliant eccentric who disturbs the repose of his environment. He is probably the most articulate action hero there has ever been, and fully convincing in his dialogue (by three writers) as a creature of Victorian England. Holmes has been reimagined as someone who suffers from sensory overload and a compulsively analytical mind, a consciousness he must repress with drugs, drink, or the occasional round of pit fighting in the film's one truly gratuitous scene. This is an elaboration rather than a transformation of Holmes; in practice the detective is the same wizard of ratiocination as ever, except when Irene Adler is in the room or, almost generally, when the subject turns to women.

Encountering Watson's fiancee for the first time, he nearly perfectly maps her past from the evidence before him, but his one error earns him a face full of wine from the indignant woman; he had assumed a mercenary motivation when the true explanation was more tragic. He is uncertain around women due either to misogyny or inexperience, and this has fueled speculation about his relationship with Watson, who here is his roommate but on his way out to live with the fiancee. Some reviewers are drawing inferences about the roommates from a modern frame of reference, but a little cinematic literacy leads one to conclude that Holmes and Watson have no more or less of a "bromance" than the three protagonists of Gunga Din. As Watson, Jude Law is in the same position as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the 1939 film, except that this being a little less of a Boy's Own story than that quasi-Kipling saga, the good doctor gets to have things both ways, with an indulgent wife allowing him continued adventures with his friend.

I am no Sherlockian and have never read a word of Conan Doyle. My standard of authenticity is the Jeremy Brett TV series from the 1980s, and as I've said, I see a consistency between Downey's bits of brusque arrogance and bursts of belittling wit and Brett's domineering manner. I do know that for all that Doyle himself succumbed to spiritualism after World War I, he kept Holmes a strict skeptic, and I was relieved to see that all the supernatural elements of the new story are properly debunked by the end. The one point I see as an injustice to Doyle and his creation is the scene in which Adler has to inform Holmes of the existence of Professor Moriarty (a vocal but facially unseen presence here). This undermines what I took to be Holmes's gradual, obsessive discovery of the Napoleon of Crime, which could have been a subsequent movie unto itself.

But as no Sherlockian I didn't mind at all this being an action film, especially since Ritchie pulled off the challenge of balancing period flavor and a frantic modern pace. This film is as much a CGI-a-rama as any action film, but it keeps the actors foregrounded, and they prevent the effects from upstaging them. In one scene a half-built steamship has been accidentally sent sliding into the Thames, nearly crushing Holmes and Watson on its way. But as the hulk splashes into the river Downey un-ducks his head and pops his eyes wide to steal the scene. He has learned how to master the CGI screenscape and may now have two ongoing franchises in which to refine that mastery. He commands the screen like a silent film star, and some of Ritchie's images and furious montages have the primal power of that period. One sequence that crosscuts from Holmes and Watson battling an Eric Campbell-like menace (Robert Maillet)to Adler attempting an escape through sewers with pilfered goods to chaos in the House of Lords and closeups of the glowering villain, all to the even more furious beat of Hans Zimmer's score, may seem attention-deficient to some eyes, but to me, and maybe because of the period, it was more reminiscent of D.W. Griffith than Michael Bay. My overall impression is that Ritchie has established continuity with the old tradition of genre cinema rather than breaking with it in any offensive way. Why, he even has a scene with a heroine on a conveyor mechanism menaced by a saw! In simpler terms, he's made a kick-ass movie that, in my view, doesn't really violate the spirit of Holmes -- not that Arthur Conan Doyle ever cared about that, anyway.

While Downey is his present masterful self, and Jude Law may have found the role he was born to play, I must confess that Rachel McAdams fails as Irene Adler. Her dialogue isn't written at the same level as the lead actors', either because that's meant to mark her as American or because the writers knew that McAdams simply couldn't speak the lines otherwise. Whatever the reason, she doesn't come across as brilliantly as Adler should, and the actress looks and sounds like what she probably is, a modern American out of her depth. It's too bad if this role reveals her limitations, since I really liked her in Red Eye, but even some great ones could never do period, and maybe McAdams should restrict herself accordingly.

While I liked the film quite a bit, I understand that the liberties taken with Doyle's creations may make Sherlock Holmes less likable for some if not many other viewers. And while I won't concede the last word to Sherlockians, I can see how the tone of the thing might turn off people who find the crash and bang inappropriate for the material. But I think the crash and bang are well enough orchestrated and kept from overshadowing the actors to make Ritchie's Holmes an objectively good film, whether it's a great Holmes film or not.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

PANDORA'S BOX (1929): A Film For Christmas

Despite a truncated Hollywood career and a submergence into obscurity by the end of the 1930s, Louise Brooks has, probably more than anyone but the great comedians, become the face of silent film, not to mention a personification of the 1920s. If the word "flapper" means anything to someone, the mental image they summon is likely Brooks, though I'm not sure if she actually played one. She symbolizes liberated (if not libertine) youth and female sexuality. Other women wore bangs in the roaring decade, but posterity has decreed that she wore them best. It helped that she survived and re-emerged to tell the tale herself in the 1970s. She called her memoir Lulu in Hollywood, which has things a little backward, since she left Hollywood as a rising starlet to become Lulu in G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, her definitive film. Pabst, one of the decade's German masters, made Brooks an icon.

Pandora's Box is a film some people probably think that they know before they see it. Isn't Lulu a classic vamp, a seducer and literal destroyer of men? Doesn't she dance with a woman? Isn't she killed by Jack the Ripper? Well, as for the last, there is a murderer named Jack rampaging in London at the end of the movie, but since the film looks to be set in Pabst's present day he's unlikely to be the 1888 Whitechapel killer, given the actor's apparent age. Meanwhile, Lulu certainly does dance in a friendly but provocative way with a Countess who has a crush on her, but I don't think she reciprocates the crush. And is she the classic vamp, the virtual succubus, the Pandora a prosecutor labels her as who causes all human woe? I don't think you can really say until you see the part of the movie people are least familiar with.

Lulu has shot her husband, a newspaper publisher, on her wedding night, after he threatened to kill her for carousing with some old cronies at the reception. On trial for her life, she's convicted of manslaughter, but he pals put out the lights in the courtroom, surround her and bull their way out of the building. A fugitive, she hooks up with her, er, stepson Alwa (future Dracula Francis Lederer), who overcomes his initial repugnance to reassert his original attraction to her. Using the Countess's passport, they smuggle Lulu out of the country, but get noticed by a shady character who runs a casino ship where the couple eventually take up residence. Alwa becomes a gambling addict and drains the family fortune until the casino operator declares Lulu a commodity to be turned in for a reward or sold to the highest decadent bidder. Another old theatre crony wants to rat her out to raise money for another show. Out of desperation she persuades her lesbian pal the Countess to seduce the theater guy, a big slob, and give him the money he needs so he won't turn Lulu in. The lesbian ends up killing the slob in a hysterical fit, while Alwa, also desperate to buy Lulu's freedom, gets caught cheating at cards. This is the least known and least popular part of Pandora's Box, partly because Brooks loses her iconic bangs (she'll grow them back in the final act) and probably because Lulu here is victim rather than vamp, a possession to be dickered over. It makes you think that that's how the male characters have viewed her all along, and that makes you ask yourself what she's really thought of the men.

The hair is different, but that's Louise Brooks as Lulu turning away from gambling boyfriend Francis Lederer in Act 7 of Pandora's Box. German silents were often divided into little acts in an annoying manner, as if Quentin Tarantino had invented their cinema.

She's clearly jealous when the publisher proposes to dump her for an aristocratic wife, but are her motives as materialistic as his? I don't think so. Sure, she likes fine things and looks good in them, but she doesn't seem to calculate in the same way the men do. She wants a sugar daddy, but in a way she wants the daddy as much as the sugar. With that mentality she makes a poor prostitute in the final act. Encountering the murderous yet tormented Jack, and having no idea of his nature, she responds to an obvious neediness in him with such intensity that it doesn't matter that he has no money. In a way, he has something better: a Christmas candle and a little sprig of mistletoe given him by the Salvation Army. Surrounded by squalor, the ruined Alwa and the last of her old cronies living off her earnings in one of cinema's most wretched apartments, she seems to want unconditional love, and to give it in return, more than money. Though she doesn't know what's coming (and it almost doesn't come; moved by her own neediness, Jack actually drops his trusty knife, only to be fatally aroused by Lulu's own kitchen implement) you get the impression that she'd welcome it if she knew it would make this one guy, this stranger, happy.

Other people have noticed an essential innocence about Lulu, and while that might not be the right way to describe it, there's something more truthful about the character, and Brooks's performance, than the usual vamp archetype. Pandora's Box is often Exhibit A for any demonstration of the psychological sophistication or subtlety that silent film could express, and we're definitely a world away from the extravagances of The Thief of Bagdad. Pabst is a more naturalistic director and his style approaches the "invisible" ideal that puts editing and composition at the story's service to the point where you might forget you're watching a movie. He does this with the fluidity of late silent technique, by comparison to which early talkies from the same year have the finesse of a fall down the stairs. Some critics have argued that silent film could never handle straight drama because it couldn't accommodate dialogue or subtle action, but in the better silent dramas editing can establish a dramatic rhythm nearly as well as dialogue would later. I don't think Pandora's Box would be improved by sound.

So maybe it isn't the ideal Christmas film, but Christmas is in it, and the spirit of Christmas too, in a sad way. Maybe the best way to keep the spirit would be to pause the movie when Jack drops his knife and enters Lulu's hovel, or when they bask in the humble candlelight. That way you'd be giving Lulu a reprieve, or maybe even a happy ending if you shut the movie off for the night.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

VIOLENT NAPLES (Napoli Violenta, 1976)

Is it strange that I tend to prefer crime movies that take the criminal's point of view over those that sympathize with the cops? It seems strange to me sometimes. I don't exactly sympathize with criminals in the real world, nor do I aspire to be one. My preference is aesthetic rather than ethical, though I suppose there's a little bit of ethics to it. What bugs me about some cop movies is the attitude that criminals are just scum to be wiped out by any means necessary. Something in my mind rebels against that attitude. I don't consider myself soft on crime or an advocate of leniency. But something gets lost, I think, when writers and directors portray criminals as "just scum," or nothing but evil. Maybe I've seen too many films noirs. From them I get the attitude that nearly every criminal is a human tragedy. They can richly earn whatever bad fate they get in a movie, but if a film uses criminal characters just to show the bad fate it does seem a little like exploitation in the bad sense of the word.

With this setup, you might expect me to slam Umberto Lenzi's poliziotteschi film, one of a series featuring genre god Maurizio Merli as hard-charging Inspector Betti. Actually, I found it wildly entertaining.

Commissario Betti has bounced from one Italian city to another, his tactics apparently proving too tough for the higher-ups or the politicians. In Naples, he has a number of problems to solve. These include the kidnapping and rape of a woman whose husband refuses to cooperate with investigators even after she's recovered; a rash of bank robberies for which a leading suspect seems to have an airtight alibi; and a feud between two mobsters, the Commandante (Barry Sullivan) and upstart Francesco Capuano (John Saxon). For Betti, there's no problem that a grant of special powers to the police can't solve. Crime is getting ever more organized, so Betti thinks the police should also. His superiors never seem to agree with him, usually for political reasons. But Betti's tactics, sanctioned or not, seem to work, but by the time they do he's outworn his welcome in another city.

John Saxon is pursued by cops and crooks alike in Violent Naples.

Poliziotteschi is basically Italian for "tough cop," and the genre was supposedly inspired by American films like Dirty Harry and The French Connection. The concept obviously struck a nerve in Italy, which was beset not only with criminal violence but political terrorism throughout the Seventies, and where there was a historical constituency for a strong government that would deal ruthlessly with its enemies. There's an obvious temptation to view the genre as "right-wing" or even "fascist," but we should probably steer away from putting political labels on sensationalistic exploitation films. Betti's occasional hankering after more power is just crowd-pleasing window dressing for the real matter of Lenzi's cop movies: fast-paced, violent action.

American cult movie fans probably know Lenzi best as the director of gorefests like Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive!, but his poliziotteschi films are slowly winning more of a following. That's because they combine some of the gore he's better known for here with more thrilling action sequences. Napoli Violenta, for instance, has one of the most exciting race-against-time sequences I've ever seen. Those bank robberies I mentioned earlier are the work of a paroled gangster. He has to sign in at precinct headquarters at the same time every day as part of his parole. His racket is carefully plotted and timed across the map of Naples. Masked, he leads his gang into a bank and takes the money. He joins them in a getaway car and rides a few blocks. Then he hops onto the passenger seat of a waiting motorcycle. Each job is timed so the bike can deliver him at the police station just in time to sign in. Given the "impossibility" of getting from the bank to the station, his signing in gives him an alibi. As Lenzi films it, you can understand why. Filming from between the handlebars and almost at street level, with no faking whatsoever, the stunt biker goes on a nearly suicidal, nearly homicidal tear through Naples, barely missing pedestrians who may not be in on the stunt and squeezing past two tight lanes of traffic at many points. I shudder to imagine outtakes of these scenes.

Eventually, this guy gets too cocky about his alibi, leading Betti to suspect that he has a system. This leads to a chase scene made up entirely of editing as the crook rides hellbent from the latest bank to the station while Betti, who's been tricked into staking out the wrong location, races through the streets in his cop car to intercept the suspect outside the station. They end up colliding in a side street, but that just sets up a foot chase that leads to a hostage crisis on board a tram. As Betti, riding the roof, dodges bullets fired through the ceiling, the bandit threatens to kill passengers. This being a Lenzi film, the man is true to his word. As another train passes on the opposite track, he holds a woman's head outside a door and smashes it repeatedly against the windows of the other train before Betti finally confronts and kills him.

The brutality in Violent Naples points toward Lenzi's gore films. The violence both establishes the criminals as monsters and serves as fitting punishments for them. It's meant to justify Betti's ruthless tactics, though he never commits atrocities on the scale of what the criminals do to each other or to innocents. He usually beats them up or at worst shoots them. The most ethically questionable thing he does is to frame one character (who deserves to go to jail) for shooting another criminal whom Betti himself has killed.

Above, the perp did it to himself, honest. Below, another loser faces death by bowling ball in another obvious precursor to the finale of There Will Be Blood.

While the movie exists to gratify the audience's lust for violence, Violent Naples aims for pathos in a peculiarly bleak ending. Earlier in the film we were introduced to a spunky punk of a kid who likes to annoy drivers by playing the cripple and limping slowly across the street, only to razz them once he reaches the sidewalk. The kid's dad is an honest garage owner who won't pay protection money. The garage gets torched, the dad dies, but the kid barely escapes -- and ends up crippled for real. The film closes with Betti about to leave town after resigning. His driver stops at a light and he sees the kid, whom he'd sort of befriended earlier, limping all too painfully and slowly across the street. The sight changes his mind, and he turns back to reclaim his job, but the camera sticks with the boy limping along as the credits roll.

"I'm walking here!" But this kid will soon learn better than to mock the handicapped.

To an extent, Betti has felt guilty about putting his own men at grave risk, especially when it costs some of them their lives. He blames the establishment for forcing him to use risky tactics instead of declaring all-out war on crime, but his resignation is partly a way of blaming himself for his friends' deaths. Seeing the limping kid reminds Betti that the risks cops take don't count as much as the danger everyone must endure while crime flourishes. But that's about as much depth as you'll get out of Commissario Betti. Maurizio Merli's performance is a matter more of attitude than characterization, and you could argue that he acts as much with his mighty manly moustache as with anything else. But he has an indisputable charisma as an icon of righteous indignation that made him the defining star of the poliziotteschi genre. Unfortunately, he was typecast as a tough cop and couldn't transcend the short-lived genre. His movie career was pretty much finished before he died at age 49, and that adds another layer of pathos to his performance in this or any movie in the genre.

Anyone who appreciates authentic action should give Violent Naples a look just for the amazing motorcycle scenes, and fans of John Saxon should enjoy his relatively small role here. I liked the movie but I see its limitations. It's like reading a pulp novel in all its simplicity compared to the noirish novels by Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, etc. Sometimes there's something fresh, bracing or exuberant to the pulps, especially when done in hard-boiled style. But there's a richness to the other writers even when they deal with lousy people that exposes the pulps for the caricatures that they often are. For the same reason I prefer the crime films of Fernando di Leo, which are nearly as violent as Lenzi's films but take up the challenge that Lenzi avoids of rendering criminals as nearly three-dimensional characters instead of cartoonish ogres. Napoli Violenta is a terrific film of its kind, and worth seeing for any genre student as a representative poliziotteschi, but there are certain kinds of Italian crime films that I like better.

The screen caps you're looking at come from the 5-film Mafia Kingpin collection, part of Allegro Corporation's new cheapo Pop Flix line. This two-disc set includes two more Lenzi-Merli movies (The Cynic, The Rat and The Fist and Rome Armed to the Teeth, both letterboxed) along with Di Leo's Mr. Scarface and Bruno Corbucci's Cop in Blue Jeans (both fullscreen). I found it in a Borders checkout line for $5.99, and since it was meant as an impulse purchase I was glad to oblige. These are English-only editions and presumably not definitive, but it's an inexpensive introduction to Italian crime and the Lenzis make it worth the price.

In lieu of a trailer, here are the opening credits with some nice music by Franco Micalizzi, uploaded to YouTube by poliziotteschi.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wendigo Meets BLOOD SUCKERS (1970)

Also known as Incense for the Damned and Freedom Seeker, Robert Hartford-Davis's film is an adaptation of Simon Raven's novel Doctors Wear Scarlet. It concerns Richard Fountain, an Oxford professor of classics and wayward son of the British foreign secretary. His academic mentor, Walter Goodrich (Peter Cushing) sends Tony Seymour to Greece to investigate rumors that Richard, whom Walter wants to make his son-in-law, has fallen in with a bad crowd during a research trip. Accompanying Tony are Richard's best friend Bob and Walter's daughter Penelope, who have an odd rivalry for Richard's affections. In Greece, they hook up with British diplomat Maj. Longbow (Patrick Macnee). This foursome picks up the trail of a dubious entourage which Richard has joined, surrounding the mysterious Chriseis. Her troupe trips out regularly, indulges in orgiastic practises (so we're told) and kills the occasional person in fits of bloodthirsty frenzy.

On the island of Hydra they track Richard to a mountain fort and chase off Chriseis's crew. He is weak and prone to visions; he prophesies the death of one of the party, and as it happens Longbow falls from a cliff after an encounter with the returning Chriseis. Bob discovers Chriseis biting Richard's neck and apparently drinking his blood. He fights the evil woman and shoves her off the side of a staircase. The fall of about ten feet appears to kill her, but Bob believes she's a vampire and wants to stake her on the spot. Tony arrives after failing to save Longbow and won't let Bob do it; it would make a probable accident look too much like murder.

Instead, they and Penelope bring Richard back to Oxford, where Walter wants to announce Richard and Penelope's engagement after the young man makes a speech at an anniversary banquet for alumni. Richard ruins the occasion by turning his speech into a diatribe against academic tyrants whom he equates with blood suckers. As the hall erupts in a tumult, Richard drags Penelope away, apparently to consummate the relationship in advance. But after he hallucinates Chriseis in her place, Richard bites Penelope's neck. Bob finds him drinking her blood and chases him into the night and onto the loose-tiled roof, from which Richard falls to a death by impalement. After this, Tony is more open to Bob's suggestions, and the film closes with the men preparing to stake both Richard and Penelope.

"I command you!" Is Peter Cushing the real Blood Sucker?

So, Wendigo: Is this a vampire film or not?

It depends on your definition of a vampire movie. In the loosest sense, Wendigo says it's obviously one, but some may disagree if they insist on a supernatural aspect to vampirism. The objection isn't necessarily justified, as modern blood fetishism is thematically akin to traditional vampirism. Also, Chriseis is obviously a vamp in the 20th century sense of the term, i.e. an evil seductress, whether she's a supernatural creature or not.

Blood Suckers (pronounced "Blood Suckas" for the American market) isn't without supernatural bits. Richard's prophecy is one example. One more mysterious instance that may key into traditional vampire myth involves a medallion Richard wears that Chriseis rips from his neck before ravishing him during one of her gang's revels. What the medallion's about isn't clear, but she reacts as if it's a holy symbol that she needs to get out of the way. In the film, Bob speaks for a supernatural interpretation of events, suggesting that Richard is still in danger back in Britain because Chriseis hasn't been properly destroyed. While Tony eventually seems to agree with Bob, the film still leaves room for doubt. Tony had earlier spoken to a psychologist (the late Edward Woodward) who explains vampirism in terms of deviant sexuality ("Sadomasochism is no laughing matter," he says). Chriseis may just have been a kinky lunatic, and Richard's issues with father-figure Walter and needy friends suggest some kind of Freudian explanation for his nuttiness. Because Chriseis is never shown to have any of the vampire's supernatural powers, Wendigo believes that the film itself leans away from her being a true vampire. But the ending with the stakes shows that the filmmakers want to leave the question open. In a way, it's horror enough that rational men like Bob and Tony now believe in vampires, whether their belief is justified or not.

As a film, Blood Suckers takes a while to warm up. The opening scenes are choppily edited and the director doesn't seem very good at dialogue scenes throughout the film, but he finds his footing when he has a chance to show some action. A scene in which Penelope is chased through a Greek town by a gang led by an old woman bent on misguided vengeance, and finally rescued by Bob, is really well done. It takes advantage, as the film does throughout, of great locations in both Greece and Britain. But Hartford-Davis's ability to handle action is undermined by some really poor effects works in a couple of scenes. In one, Penelope has a wine-induced vision of Richard in ceremonial robes being crushed by falling rocks at an ancient temple. In another, Chriseis fends off a pursuing Longbow by setting off a mini-avalanche of rocks that nearly knock him off a cliff. In both cases, Wendigo was annoyed by the plain fakeness of the prop rocks, which look factory-made and give little illusion of weight. The fact that the fake rocks fall in front of a rear-projected Richard makes the effect even more lousy.

Blood Suckers: good locations, lousy special effects.

Wendigo has learned that Blood Suckers had a troubled production history, as maybe the multiple titles would tell you. That may be to blame for the choppy feel of many scenes, but the film ultimately gains enough momentum to remain compelling despite the off-putting narration by Tony. For the first third of the film we are told more than shown what's happening to Richard, and it hinders our involvement in the story. The acting, apart from Cushing, is weak, with Patrick Macnee looking alarmingly over the hill so soon after The Avengers and Johnny Sekka as Bob being given to ranting rather than acting. The other cast members are dull, especially our hero-narrator Tony. Still, if there were a surer hand behind the camera, Incense for the Damned would have been a much better film. The ambiguity of it appeals to Wendigo, but it isn't really something he can recommend to vampire cinema buffs.

* * *
Blood Suckers ended up being a sort of pleasant surprise after Wendigo sat through most of the supporting program on the Something Weird DVD. The feature itself looks pretty good, except for some terribly dark day-for-night scenes, and the picture actually looks well proportioned on his widescreen TV, compared to the full-frame images I get on my computer. But Something Weird DVDs are notorious for their extras, and extra obnoxious for Wendigo was a short subject entitled "The Horny Vampire." He thinks that calling this alleged comedy lame would be too generous. The direction would have to improve drastically to be poor, and the acting's on the sub-porno level.

It's about, well, a horny vampire, and its idea of a sight gag is the horny vampire crashing into a door and embedding both his fangs and his wang into the thing. The monster isn't turned by crosses because he's Jewish, but is ultimately repelled by a mysteriously materializing strap-on dildo stuffed into the panty hose of a woman who wasn't wearing any in the previous shot. As a rule, Wendigo believes that comedy and horror don't mix well, and comedy vampire films tend to be crap. While "The Horny Vampire" carefully minces around a pile of crap in the movie, in reality it falls in face-first. But if he feels this way about this mere short, what will Wendigo do when I run Dracula the Dirty Old Man for him? We'll find out sometime in 2010.
For now, here's the American trailer for Blood Suckers, uploaded to YouTube by SilentHillAsylum83: