Sunday, January 31, 2010


One of director Anthony Mann's first films, this adaptation of a Vicki Baum short story is one of the last starring roles for Erich Von Stroheim. This is an early film noir and in it the 60 year old Stroheim plays the sort of role Edward G. Robinson was playing in films like Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. As if to establish the ground rules of the rising genre, established heavies like Robinson and Stroheim (the erstwhile "Man You Love to Hate") are thrown like raw meat to the new monster in Hollywood, the femme fatale. In the case of Stroheim's acting career, Flamarion is like a noir do-over of his first talking role, The Great Gabbo, with the balance of power decisively shifted from the imperious showman to his flirtatious protege.

Mann and his writers immediately turn Stroheim against type by introducing him as a disheveled, dying man lurking about backstage as a Mexico City vaudeville show of 1936 breaks down amid sounds of gunfire. The wife and partner of a trick bicyclist has been killed, and the bicyclist is the prime suspect. But as the once-great Flamarion tells the last actor in the theater, after the cops have left, he is the killer -- and in proper noir flashback style, he proceeds to explain why.

The Great Flamarion, after and before.

The Great Flamarion was a trick-shot artist with a unique comedy-act gimmick. His act has him burst in upon an actress playing his wife, who he finds cheating on him. Provocatively for the time, he seems prepared to shoot his wife's clothes off before her paramour attempts his escape. The role of the paramour requires a dancer's agility, for he must dodge Flamarion's real bullets as the star shoots out the lights on a mirror behind the man. The paramour, Al Wallace (Dan Duryea in a very William H. Macy type role) is actually the husband of Flamarion's stage wife (Mary Beth Hughes), but theirs is an unhappy partnership. Al's an alky, but he has dirt on Connie that keeps her from breaking up the partnership. She also has the hots for the bicyclist she'll eventually marry. How to get free? Connie's plan is to work on the cold, teutonic Flamarion and soften him up. It'll take a while, but it'll get Al jealous enough to provoke a situation in which the eminently qualified Flamarion can eliminate Mr. Wallace. The beauty of the scheme is that she'll take advantage of Al's alcoholism to get Flamarion off the hook. He shoots Al deliberately, but a coroner's inquest determines on the basis of Al's drinking that the victim caused his own death by mistiming his steps on stage. Her deal with Flamarion is that, after a decent interval of mourning (three months), they'll hook up in Chicago and she'll marry him. Believe it...or not.

Mary Beth Hughes rarely got out of B-movies, but for Flamarion she deserves a spot in the Femme Fatale Hall of Fame.

In retrospect, it might have made more sense for Connie to set things up to make Flamarion's attack look more blatantly like murder. That way he'd be in jail, or dead, but as things develop, once he figures out (it takes a while, the sap) that he's been jilted and dumped, he sacrifices his career and wealth in order to track her down. He finally has to sell all but one of his guns to afford a ticket to the show in Mexico where he finds her at last. True to form, Connie seems poised to dump the bicyclist for an acrobat before Flamarion intervenes.

The Great Flamarion takes the flashback framing device to an absurd extreme, giving us a detailed narrative related by an old man on the brink of bleeding to death after falling from a catwalk. By backdating the climax to 1936, the writers seem to acknowledge that the vaudeville story was somewhat dated for Forties audiences. The film's femme fatale is a misogynist nightmare of wily femininity chewing up and spitting out successive male victims; even this early in the noir game cliche threatens to overtake social or psychological realism. But the movie is still worth watching for Mann's maturing visual style and Stroheim's iconoclastic performance. The actor starts off (in the flashback, that is) playing the predictable barking martinet, but as he responds to Hughes Stroheim reveals a reticent vulnerability that wins your sympathy. Unlike his archetypal jaded or decadent sophisticate, Flamarion is a once-bitten, twice-shy sort whose gruff manner is all about protecting himself from forming emotional attachments that might hurt him -- a wise approach, we might decide in retrospect. Stroheim loosens up quite a bit along the way, even dancing with himself at one point in anticipation of his reunion with Connie. It's an underrated performance that should serve as proof that the man history remembers as a director victimized by Hollywood has never really gotten enough credit as an actor.

Meanwhile, Mann was entering a phase where practically everything he shot helped define the visual look of noir. His effects range from the expressionistic (the bicyclists' shadows behind the curtain as Connie seduces yet another man) to the show-offish (characters often talk to people who are only seen in mirrors), and they give this film a style probably unequaled in any other 1945 release from Republic Pictures.

This is the earliest Mann film that I've seen and I can see the qualities in it that made him one of my favorite directors. It's a minor film in his filmography but one worth watching for fans of him or Stroheim.

Friday, January 29, 2010


If the Toei studio in the 1970s was Japan's answer to Hollywood's Warner Bros. studio in the 1930s, as I believe, then Sonny Chiba was Toei's answer to James Cagney. He was the Japanese studio's embodiment of charismatic thuggishness, and as a martial arts specialist, he was a kind of amalgam of Cagney's gangster brutality and his dancer's grace. And if Toei was the Warner Bros. of 1970s Japan, it's no surprise to see them doing biopics. Chiba was the Toei biopic specialist, at least when it came to portraying famous martial artists of the recent past, but in The Power of Aikido he yields the starring role to his younger brother, Jiro -- though you wouldn't know that from the way the film is sold in the U.S.

Spot the star: is it obvious choice Sonny Chiba or brother Jiro in the lead role?

Gekitotsu! Aikido (the first word echoes the original Japanese title for The Street Fighter) purports to tell the story of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the title discipline. It opens in the late 1920s (the beginning of the Showa era, i.e. Emperor Hirohito's reign) with Ueshiba ("leader" to his pupils) running a "reclamation farm" in Hokkaido. He has something of a mistress, Ms. Mine, while his wife stays in the big city. He tries to toughen up his men by putting them through rigorous training, consisting of him beating them up. But as it turns out, his fighting skills are rather weak. He learns this when he shelters a runaway boy from the Hokkai Group's massage parlor. He handles the gangsters easily enough when they come to reclaim the boy, but when their enforcer Natori Shinbei (Sonny Chiba) intervenes Ueshiba gets a major beatdown. During the battle Mine suffers some collateral damage that will have repercussions later.

When Ueshiba's wife finally comes to the farm, Mine makes a hasty exit, but this proves to be for health reasons. When Shinbei hitches a ride on the same wagon she's on, he learns of her chest pains and feels guilty for causing them. He falls in love with her and disappears from the film for time to tend to her. Meanwhile, the humiliated Ueshiba is determined to learn as many martial arts as he can until he can avenge himself by beating Shinbei's karate. One of his would-be mentors is a disgruntled master named Kenzo Okita, who warns him that cronyism too often determines the top positions in the martial arts world. But in time we learn that Okita really protests too much, blaming others for his faults. He's a vicious drunk who cuts a naval officer's arm off in a fit of pique after announcing, "Everything is under my control, even though I'm drunk!"

Okita disarms an offending official -- literally.

Later, after learning to swallow an enemy's attack with his own, Ueshiba tests himself by challenging Shinbei's older brother, who runs a prestigious dojo. Ueshiba beats this overrated fighter so badly that the sensei kills himself. When the news reaches Shinbei he feels obliged to seek revenge, but the dying Mine dissuades him. Instead, Shinbei challenges Ueshiba to a friendly match, but their plans are interrupted by the elder brother's former students, who have hired Okita to kill Ueshiba by any means necessary -- by hand, sword or gun.

I liked how this movie, directed by Street Fighter helmer Shigehiro Ozawa, set up characters who prove more complex than first impressions suggest. Natori Shinbei at first looks like the villain of the piece, but ends up a sympathetic character, while Okita at first looks like a sympathetic victim of the system, but proves a real villain. Giving the hero two major antagonists also helps solve a stardom problem. This is the sort of film where Sonny Chiba shouldn't really win the final fight, but in 1975 do you really want him to lose a fight? Answer: have the fight interrupted by the bad guy and give Sonny a chance to go out a hero without beating the hero.

Somebody's about to get a serious beating as a warmup for Sonny's final showdown with the hero.

While Aikido is part of a Toei martial-biopic genre that includes Sonny Chiba's Mas Oyama trilogy and his Killing Machine one-shot, his supporting presence in this film gives it an air of exploitation, as if the studio knew it needed him to put the project over even if someone else was the ostensible star. Also exploitative is the late appearance of Chiba protege Etsuko "Sister Street Fighter" Shihomi as an admiral's daughter who becomes one of Ueshiba's first students. The last half hour gives her opportunities to humilate a trio of Japanese marines and at least half a dozen would-be avengers of Shinbei's mother in fight scenes that are utterly irrelevant to the main story. But this sort of gratuitous mayhem isn't really unwelcome in a martial arts film, even one as relatively well-concerned with character development as this one.

Who am I kidding? You can probably come up with a funnier caption for this one than I can.

The mayhem here isn't as grotesque as Chiba and Co. usually get, though. While Sonny himself gets one of his patented grimacing kills, he displays no internal organs as trophies, and Okita's arm-chopping exploit is the goriest bit in the picture. The typical Toei gore may not have been deemed appropriate for a film dedicated to the comparatively pacific "defensive power" of aikido, but there's still plenty of action to keep this interesting for martial-arts fans.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


To be precise, they call him "Cemetery," but more often in the English dub of Giuliano "Anthony Ascott" Carnimeo's semi-comical spaghetti western Gianni Garko's heroic gunfighter is called "the Ace of Hearts." Ace is a man who went the way of the gun when his wife was killed by bandits years ago, but despite a shot of him mourning at her grave this film has nothing to do with revenge. But it turns out to be a little something more than the dismal comedy that it threatened to be at first.

At first we follow two brothers, John and George McIntire, returning from the East to their father's ranch. They've been citified and college educated and, while they're not exactly effete and not exactly fops, they don't really fit into the wild west, the land where babies have bullets for pacifiers and an old lady can shoot a cactus to pieces from a moving train. But they do see themselves as gentlemen with a code of honor to uphold, and this gets them into trouble with the local roughs until the Ace of Hearts intervenes.

The McIntire brothers (Christ Chittell and John Fordyce) are plucky lads but tend to end up in compromising positions despite the Ace of Hearts' (Gianni Garko) efforts to cover for them.

The McIntire boys soon learn that their dad is paying protection money to an extortion gang with an unknown leader. They won't stand for such treatment of their father and with their new retainers Chico and Pedro (the gringos have a hard time telling them apart) they set out to seek justice, only to be caught with their pants (and everything else) down in a pond until the Ace of Hearts intervenes. This time the boys wise up, buy some guns, and ask for instructions from Ace. The helpful gunfighter tries to teach the Mexicans the art of the shotgun, but Chico and Pedro are just as good with throwing knives as they'll ever get with guns.

The film follows the McIntires' quest to learn the identity of the head extortionist, with Ace as their muscle. But the gang has their own hired gun known simply as The Duke (William Berger). "Acey" and "Dukey" know each other quite well and share a mutual professional respect that borders on real affection. In subtle ways they manipulate events so each can get a bigger payday, but both are reluctant to be forced into a potentially fatal showdown -- until there's a $100,000 payday at stake.

The camaraderie between the two gunfighters is the best thing about Graveyard. Garko gives a genial, relaxed performance that has just enough gravitas thanks to the scene at his wife's grave to keep him credible. Berger is even better as a world-weary yet unflappable fellow who never becomes the villain you might expect. He avoids being provoked into fights, responding to insults by agreeing with them, giving an antagonist every chance to walk away until gunplay becomes absolutely necessary. Paid in advance to keep Ace at bay while the gang attacks the McIntires, Duke sees no need to do so by killing him. The grudging friendship between the two gunmen is so well developed that I thought the film would evolve into tragicomedy with one man finally felling the other. But while Garko and Berger give the film a needed edge by playing their characters largely straight, not for slapstick, the film remains a comedy in the end, avoiding any downer finale and even (by modern standards) leaving open another encounter of "Acey" and "Dukey" someday.

Gli fumavano le Colt...lo chiamavano Camposanto is an unpretentious western with generally decent dubbing, though the sound mix on the VideoAsia DVD in the Spaghetti Western Bible Vol. 3 set is a little muddy. Carnimeo's direction is effective but not as flashy as his Sartana films, and some of the comedy is overdone, particularly an overlong barroom brawl scene. Bruno Nicolai throws in a whistling theme tune and adds some mildly melancholy notes later on. There's nothing really special or spectacular about this movie apart from two spaghetti stalwarts, Garko and Berger, doing some of their best acting in the genre. If Ace and Duke had ever crossed paths again, I wouldn't have complained at all.

Here's an Italian trailer uploaded to YouTube by MrSpaghettiWestern:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In Brief: MOON (2009)

As the imbecile from The Stand might say, M-O-O-N spells an independent sci-fi film directed by Duncan Jones, set no more than a few decades in our future. By that time Lunar Industries, apparently an American-Korean consortium, has set up mining operations on the moon as part of a fusion energy business. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the lone person manning one of the mining sites, attended only by Gerty, a functional non-humanoid robot who speaks with the HAL-ish voice of Kevin Spacey and lamely offers emotional support to Sam by sporting smiley faces or other expressions on a display screen. Bell is near the end of his three-year contract and eager to return to Earth, but he gets into a bad accident near the perimeter of the mining camp. Sam wakes up in the infirmary in a shaky state but quickly grows suspicious about what happened outside. Gerty is reluctant to let Sam back outside until he's fully recuperated but relents when Sam threatens to wreck the station. He's only supposed to check the outside of the station for damage but heads out to the accident site. Finding the wreck of his vehicle, he finds himself (?!?) inside, barely alive and in a bad way.

Sam brings his other self back to the station and Gerty treats him in the infirmary. But the other self found in the vehicle is apparently the first Sam we saw at the start of the film, since he still wears bandages on his hand from a scalding accident we saw. This Sam (Sam I) obviously assumes that the Sam who rescued him (Sam II) is a clone, but after initial denials Sam II begins to suspect that they are both clones. The remainder of the film is their attempt, with uncertain help from Gerty, to get to the truth of things.

I don't want to go overboard complimenting what's really a modest, low-budget film that could just as well have been a SyFy original movie if SyFy actually believed in originality in its movies. But the fact that a genuine sci-fi film, not a space opera, got a theatrical release (however limited) is worthy of celebration. Moon has a few strong things going for it. One is a cleverly manipulative script that visually invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey in several ways in order to misdirect our suspicions. Another is the film's revival of craftsmanship in model work in lieu of CGI. What the model moon sets may lose in realism (and it's not that much) they gain in sheer artistry. Most importantly, Sam Rockwell does a fine job in a dual role in which he has almost nothing else to do but play off himself in variations on an original personality that may no longer exist.

Moon's modesty proves one of its main virtues. I appreciated its indifference to heavy-handed suspense and its willingness to leave some questions (particularly regarding the lifespan of clones) for viewers to figure out for themselves. This film isn't a thrill ride, but science fiction doesn't have to be. Maybe a big-budget would-be blockbuster does, but science fiction doesn't have to be that, either.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Wendigo Meets 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)

Once upon a time, the Other was an individual, an infiltrator from outside who threatened to subvert us from within with his or her seductive, decadent wiles and demonic charisma. Now, it seems, the Other is a collective, and we're less afraid (or secretly thrilled by the thought) of being conquered and enslaved by a master than of being overrun, overwhelmed, trampled, devoured. It's the difference between the vampire and the zombie, except when the vampires are more like zombies. While the romantic noble vampire occupies one end of the conceptual spectrum, at the other lurk the subhuman, the bestial, those for whom humans are no more than food.

That's what I was thinking when my friend Wendigo showed me David Slade's cinema adaptation of Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's graphic novel. He'd read the book before he saw the movie, while to me the story was all new. Even before it was published, he was intrigued by the idea of thirty days without sun making the town of Barrow AK open season on humans for vampire tourists. Templesmith's art inspired him to think cinematically about the story before he'd even heard news of a movie being made. What he likes about it is that it's pure horror in which the vampires are pure monsters. To that extent the movie is more than faithful.

Barrow, before and during the 30 Days of Night.

While the graphic novel posits a vampire society in which the pack leader is answerable to a more powerful master, in the film the vampires operate on a purely pack level. None of them are given names, and they don't even speak a human language. Wendigo thinks this costs the film some of the comics' complexity, since the graphic novel portrays the invading vampires as rogues whose reckless rampage endangers the larger vampire community. But doing away with the vampire backstory makes the horror of the film story more stark and the use of vampire language enhances the sense of alien threat. Apart from the malice they express, these vampires may as well be zombies, but the kind of malice that zombies don't express is necessary for this film to work as a horror movie.

Danny Huston (center) and his vampire gang paint the town red. Below, despite a "no turning" rule for the occasion, even children get into the act.

It's when the film deals with the comics' human characters that it starts going wrong. The big change is in the relationship of Sheriff Eben (Josh Hartnett) and his wife Stella (Melissa George). In the graphic novel, Wendigo says, theirs is a deathless profound love, but the movie starts them off as the typical estranged couple (e.g. The Abyss)whose reconciliation is facilitated by crisis. And crisis is all it takes, because the script by Niles and two collaborators does next to nothing either to keep them bickering or to show their love rekindling. The writers seem to think it suffices to give Eben family to fight for, introducing two relatives in the movie (a grandmother and younger brother) who don't exist in the graphic novel and don't do much to justify their presence on screen. After establishing the grandmother's vulnerability, the movie never shows us her fate. But the real loss as far as Wendigo's concerned is with the main couple, because it's Eben's love for Stella that motivates him to take an extreme, soul-risking step to finally deal with the vampire menace. In the movie the main motivation seems to be to make possible a big fight scene at the end.

Ultimately, Slade's film is more action movie than horror film. At most, the situation inspires dread but the film doesn't seem to be out to scare us. It seems to exist in order to have large-scale action set pieces when the vampires run amok at first and the humans even the odds with technology later. As an action film, Wendigo felt it wasn't bad. As a gore film, despite some big moments that we've captured here he says the movie actually falls a little short of Templesmith's graphic effects.

Above, vampires can't stand up to modern machinery. Below, Huston bites the big one.

Wendigo suggests comparing 30 Days of Night with From Dusk Til Dawn to see what Slade's film gets right. 30 Days does a better job of portraying really menacing looking inhuman creatures than Rodriguez and Tarantino did with their rubber-suited wonders. Niles and Slade's vampires are pure predatory menace, less interested in making us like them than in annihilating us. They reminded me of Nazis in an odd way, which may just mean that 30 Days had tapped into a modern fear of genocide in which we are dehumanized by being seen simply as objects to be processed for destruction or things to be toyed with for perverse pleasure. As for Wendigo, he can't help judging it inferior to the graphic novel, but he's willing to recommend it as an action film and for vampire fans who appreciate the variety of forms the vampire takes today.

Here's the trailer as uploaded to YouTube by SeventhDirectorate:

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Erich Von Stroheim's career as a director was a two-front war. On one side he faced the American moralists who saw him as a degenerate foreigner out to corrupt the country's youth. On the other he faced studio executives who often sided with him in favor of mature content in film as long as it made money, which Stroheim's movies often did. The problem for the money men was that Stroheim spent too much and shot too much film. He seemed to think that a movie couldn't be too long. He thought his films could be shown in installments, and with that in mind television might have been his ideal medium. This film, like Greed, could be considered a miniseries fifty years ahead of its time. But since there was no market for a miniseries, Stroheim's films were edited into shambles of their former selves. The DVD of Foolish Wives is only about 2/3 the length of the first-run theatrical version, and even that 3.5 hour cut was regarded with horror by the director, who was shut out of the editing room, as the skeleton of his cinematic child. But it made money for Universal so the studio hired him again, on the condition that he not act in the next picture. That made it easier to fire him when he went over budget yet again. But even after that Irving Thalberg, the executive who sacked Stroheim, brought him to MGM for another tempestuous production, The Merry Widow -- which also made money.

Stroheim was a popular director, despite all the howls of protest against his movies by self-appointed tribunes of middle-American morals. He was marketable in his own right as both a director and an actor, making him a calculated risk that nearly every studio in turn took up until he'd finally burned all his bridges. He made himself a star during World War I by playing the definitive Hun, the evil Prussian enemy. Stroheim was actually Austrian and when he gained creative control over his own career he changed his persona from brute to decadent, though some observers seem hardly to have noticed the difference. But from the way moralists complained against his films you would think he was advocating depravity as fun for everyone. On the evidence of Foolish Wives that's just not so. He presents himself here as a completely contemptible villain who gets a most fitting comeuppance for his offenses; his corpse is dumped into a Monte Carlo sewer. Yet the film was condemned as if Stroheim had made himself the hero, and you could actually argue the point. A star, arguably, is the hero of any star vehicle, the center of attention, the person you came to see, no matter how wickedly he acts. In this case, Stroheim was "The Man You Love to Hate," and that famous slogan probably gets us quickest to the heart of the problem. People wanted to see Stroheim do his evil thing, the same way they flocked to see Lon Chaney play his grotesque roles. In both cases, the actor's charisma transcends the repellent characters he plays. Stroheim playing evil was like Chaplin playing the tramp; you knew what you were in for and you went for that reason. So the outraged moralist might well conclude that if Americans threw their money at Stroheim repeatedly to watch his decadent act, he must have corrupted them somehow.

What were they seeing this time? In Foolish Wives Stroheim is Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, formerly of the Russian imperial army and dispossessed of his estates by the Bolshevik Revolution -- or so he claims. It's never proven that he's not what he claims, but he's consorting with two "aristocrats" who are proven at the end to be criminal impostors. They're in Monaco living on borrowed and counterfeit money, looking for a big score either at the gambling tables or at some gullible person's expense. Their target is the wife (played by the unstellar-sounding "Miss Dupont") of the new American diplomatic representative, whom Karamzin is to seduce into a compromising position. The seduction never quite comes off but the wife is put into a compromising position. Unfortunately for Karamzin, he's in his own compromising position, having promised to marry his maid. He's quite the tom cat, even having the hots for the "half-wit" daughter of his counterfeiting colleague. When the maid, after getting suckered into giving him all her savings, overhears Karamzin pitching woo at the American, she snaps and burns the impostors' house down. Karamzin makes an ungentlemanly escape ahead of the diplomat's wife, only to be thrashed by the diplomat. He attempts to takes out his frustration on the half-wit girl, and from there it's on to the sewer.

What made Stroheim's loathsome characters palatable, even entertaining to 1920s American audiences may have been a certain clownishness that really comes through in Foolish Wives. For someone supposed to be the personification of the depraved Old World, Karamzin comes off, or came off to me, as an overgrown child, a spoiled brat. We're introduced to him by the ocean as he takes early morning target practice, telegraphed to us in pantomime when one of his co-conspirators turns her hand into a mock gun and pulls the trigger. Called to breakfast from his play, he hogs all the deviled eggs as the women look on with almost motherly knowingness. His military uniform can be seen as a big kid's playsuit as well as a fetishistic or simply iconic detail of Stroheim's stardom. Karamzin's comeuppance is no more final for Stroheim the star than a spanking would be; he dies the way a slapstick comedian might die before going to work on his next short subject.

Stroheim sneaks a peek at a married woman in this nicely-composed shot. Below, he seems to be waiting for us to go away before he goes to work on his victim.

I don't mean to dismiss Stroheim completely as a menace. In fact, there's a scene in a gypsy's hut in which Karamzin is on the verge of raping the diplomat's wife in her sleep, only to be interrupted by a friar seeking shelter in the middle of a thunderstorm. As it all played out, the thought hit me that Stroheim would have made a great Dracula. He had the same evil charisma that Bela Lugosi often displayed, and was two years Bela's junior. And wouldn't you know? On the audio commentary a few minutes later Stroheim's persona was equated with Dracula as an archetypal foreign corrupter. Yeah...I can definitely see Stroheim as Dracula -- though he'd probably insist on the vampire wearing a uniform.

Butchery it may be, but what we have of Foolish Wives is quite good. Kino's DVD features the restoration by Arthur Lennig, who is the local cineaste in my territory. I never took any of his classes at SUNY Albany but I did quite religiously attend the old film showings he hosted at the Troy Public Library back in the 1980s. It's too bad that he didn't do the commentary track, since he's a great talker about cinema and even did a brief stint as a movie host on a local indy channel way back when. But I digress. Wives proves Stroheim to be a paradoxical director. Visually he was one of the most advanced filmmakers of his time. He wasn't big on camera movement but he was all over the place with angles and encouraged his cinematographers to innovate with lighting effects.

Stroheim built massive sets on the D.W. Griffith model for Foolish Wives (above) while looking forward to the film noir era in his lighting effects (below).

Stroheim had a great eye but his narrative sensibility was novelistic rather than theatrical. He created stories by accumulating detail gradually and subtly, leaving it for desperate editors to find the decisive scenes that make a photoplay. We're supposed to have lost lots of enriching nuances in all of his films because Stroheim made movies the hard way and never learned to do otherwise. It's too bad, but the man was playing with other people's money. He was the sort of artist who needed a Medici for a patron but got Thalberg instead. The irony of that, for someone who's just read a Thalberg biography, was the way the producer himself succumbed to the stroheimliche temptations of gigantism and "prestige" in some of his own pet projects, but that may be a tale for another time.

Stroheim's movies, as we see them now, are adaptations of Stroheim's movies the way other movies adapt other stories from other media. We ought to regret not having them in their true forms, but at the same time each film as is is still considered a classic of silent cinema. We should have them as he made them, but maybe there's no use crying over the spilt milk of movie history. Instead, maybe we should give Stroheim extra credit for producing raw material of such consistent high quality that even the most ruthless editing couldn't screw them up.

Here's gregoryagogo's homage to a man who knew how to smoke a cigarette:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

REVOLUTION Revisited (1985-2008)

Hugh Hudson's Revolution was one of the great flops of the 1980s, nearly a career-killer for both the director of Chariots of Fire and Greystoke and star Al Pacino, who exiled himself from cinema for several years after the disaster. It clearly was a project that both men held dear, one they felt had been taken from Hudson's hands before it was ready to meet a December release date. Somehow they convinced Warner Bros. to let them tinker with it anew before its DVD release. It's obvious that they've pondered over how to improve the thing for more than twenty years, and the DVD records a rare achievement. Hudson and Pacino have made a bad film worse.

When I first saw the theatrical version of Revolution on VHS I considered it an interesting failure. It had a promising premise, debunking the patriotic mythology of the American Revolution by portraying an ordinary man who gets drawn into the war largely against his will and sees the revolutionaries as little better than the British, if not worse, in the way they treat common people. Intellectually I appreciated the casting of Al Pacino as the hero (and Hudson informs us on the DVD that Stallone wanted the part!) because his way of speaking should have signified "common" compared to the more refined accents of the era. I also acknowledged that Pacino did try to alter his voice; he says now that Tom Dobb's was the most researched accent he ever attempted. But despite what he does, his voice is still somehow jarringly alien to the era, though that may be due to the dialogue he utters (e.g., "Got eats?") rather than how he utters it.

It's love at first sight for Nastassia Kinski when her gaze falls on Al Pacino, but after nearly 25 years I still don't really know why.

While reviewers singled Pacino out for abuse and largely misrepresented the way he spoke, the real problem wasn't the actor, nor even the bad performances by Donald Sutherland and Nastassia Kinski, but a script that offered little in the way of plot or character development, reducing the Revolution to a Simpsonian "just a bunch of stuff that happened" to Dobb and his son. Kinski's character, an upper-class merchant's daughter, is a Revolutionary sympathizer against her mother's will who falls in love with Tom Dobb, all for no good reason that we can see since the script does nothing to establish her personality or motivations. Sutherland as a vaguely perverse British officer with a prominent mole gives nearly a Pythonesque performance, which was probably not what Hudson intended. Sutherland did enhance his track record for cruelty on film (see The Day of the Locust, 1900, etc) by whipping the bare soles of a boy's feet.

Hudson and Pacino (writer Robert Dillon may not have been consulted) acknowledge that they did little at first, or weren't allowed to do enough, to let audiences get to know Tom Dobb, who comes off in the original as a sullen victim of events most of the time. Given a chance to rectify the error, they couldn't exactly shoot new scenes, and there weren't scenes available on the cutting room floor for restoration. In fact, Revolution Revisited is ten minutes shorter than the theatrical release. My dim memories of the original don't allow me to tell you what's cut, except for an implausible happy ending for one character. There was really but one option for director and star, as long as star was game. Pacino was all too game, and the result is all too gamy.

The lamest narrative device you can possibly use in cinema is first-person present-tense narration. Some people are turned off by narration in general, whether by a character in the story of an omniscient observer. But when a writer composes a narrative track that supposedly relates what characters are thinking at that moment, it's really a confession that the writer or actor has failed to convey that by the usual means of dialogue, or that the director has failed to capture what the writer and actor were trying to convey. First-person present-tense is a crutch that allows creative people to abdicate the responsibility of storytelling. It's a hallmark of bad writing in comic books and genre novels, and in cinema David Lynch's Dune (which only follows Frank Herbert's unfortunate precedent) and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line are cautionary tales of the disastrous effect this style of narration can have.

Revolution Revisited makes Dune and Thin Red Line sound as if they were scripted by James Joyce. Presumably composed by Hudson and/or Pacino, the new first-person present-tense narration for Tom Dobb is an injustice to Robert Dillon. It's one thing to have to bear the stigma of writing the original Revolution, and another altogether to be presumed to have authored lines that sound like they belong in The Conqueror. According to Hudson, they did at one point consider having Dobb's son narrate the film in past tense, but ditched that notion. With unwitting irony, Hudson and Pacino share the thought that Revolution might have made a good silent film. Hearing the new dialogue makes you wish they'd been more daring. Their concept seems to be that Tom Dobb should express in his head the instinctual, inchoate poetry of an illiterate yet soulful man. Here is a sample of the results:

Our life will turn in many a strange direction. Now, coming on a boat of my own to trade my trappings of fur and skins, to go off on a boat of war to fight for a word they name Liberty, of which I am unknowing, never having had it in my own life, wondering of its need.

More succinctly, Dobb ponders the Kinski's character persistent yet unmotivated interest in him: "She causes an uncomfort to me." This has a devastating effect on an already unsound picture, rendering it ridiculous when it had only been meaningless before. Hudson and Pacino have pushed a merely forgotten failure toward the ranks of the worst films ever made.

But before I completely condemn the film it's only fair to note that the DVD reveals what VHS conceals: Revolution is often a beautiful movie.

One aspect of Hudson's direction that the original critics condemned, his use of handheld cameras in the big battle scenes, seems perfectly reasonable and effective in establishing the visceral immediacy of antique warfare. Bernard Lutic's cinematography is very well done, and the opening scenes in New York City are an outstanding blend of Hudson's unstately direction, Lutic's imagery, and evocative production design. Revolution convincingly plants us in the middle of the War for Independence, but after all this time Hudson and Pacino still have no idea what to do once we get there.

But maybe the trailer, uploaded to YouTube by GoldcrestFilms, will convince you otherwise.

Friday, January 22, 2010

MISTER SCARFACE (Il Padrone della Citta, 1976)

This is the first film from Fernando di Leo that I've seen since I examined his great "Milieu" trilogy of crime films last fall -- Milano Calibro 9, Man Hunt and Il Boss. Those three films in their violence, cynicism and deromanticized view of organized crime stand comparison with the great Seventies crime films from the U.S. and Japan, but they don't quite prepare you for Mister Scarface. This later film is more of a comedy-drama, but di Leo has trouble maintaining a balance of comic and deadly-serious elements.

The opening sets us up for a revenge storyline as we see Jack Palance betray and kill his partner in crime. He earns the "Scarface" name for what really looks like a small wound suffered here as the partner throws a glass bottle at his head. The victim's son witnesses it all and with a dreamlike calmness walks past his father's body toward Palance as the killer collects his loot. The boy grabs a gun and gets the drop on Palance, who raises his hands almost mockingly. He knows that the gun is empty. He slaps the kid aside and goes his way.

"Mister Scarface" doesn't really seem worse for wear after his prefatory disfigurement. The film could well have been called "Mister Cigarette Holder" instead.

In the present, we're introduced to Tony (German actor Harry Baer), a hard-working enforcer for Luigi, a local loan shark (legendary Hollywood dud Edmund Purdom). It looks like Tony is being set up as a Terrence Hill sort of comic hero. As he tries to collect for his boss, he displays acrobatic fighting skills and a sort of wit -- about half of one. When one recalcitrant debtor tries to fend him off with a whip, he quips, "You may be Marquis de Sade, though I don't swing that way." The English dubbing is mostly adequate, but other odd phrases turn up. Later, Scarface, aka Signor Manzari, tells Tony, "You seem to like playing the fool." Tony answers, "It breaks my day." Throughout the early part of the film, Tony fights with his fists exclusively, which worried me. It'd be a lame crime film if no one got shot.

Tony befriends Rick (Al Cliver), a former minion of Manzari who's been beaten from the ranks for allowing himself to be suckered at cards in Luigi's club. Investigating the scene himself, Scarface writes a 3,000,000 lira check to cover his losses, but later refuses to cash it for his creditor. Luigi and his gang fear Manzari ("Just looking at him, my asshole twitches," says Vincenzo Napoli, a flamboyant oldster who becomes the primary comic relief), but Tony, looking for a shortcut to advancement in the gang, vows to get the money from Scarface. Rick helps him figure out a scheme; they hire an actor to join Tony in playing finance ministry auditors who demand to see Manzari's books. The panicky Scarface agrees to the suggestion to bribe the government men. Bribe in hand, Tony gives Luigi his money, but doesn't let his boss know that he and Rick have kept 7,000,000 lira for themselves.

Luigi didn't expect to see the money and isn't happy to. He knows that Scarface will take it out on him, especially when Tony was dumb enough to leave the original check with Manzari so he'll know exactly where his money went. Fearing the heat, Luigi skips town while Manzari's gang tears up his club. When an unfaithful minion, Peppi, learns of the extra 7 million, he realizes that Tony, an enemy who humiliated him in an earlier fight, must have the loot. Peppi kills his cowardly boss and, instead of hunting Tony down himself, allies himself with Scarface. Manzari's men kill the actor but Tony and Rick, with Napoli as advisor and intercessor with the saints, prove a tougher proposition as the film grows steadily more violent and lethal.

Edmund Purdom cashes in just as the film becomes a bit less comic.

What does all this have to do with the early murder and the boy who lived? My first assumption was that, Tony being the apparent main character, he must be the boy grown up into a life of crime. But Tony's too much the happy-go-lucky sort to be an avenger. That leaves Rick, but di Leo does just about nothing to build up anticipation for the inevitable revelation. When it comes, in the middle of a climactic showdown between our heroic trio and Manzari's gang at an old slaughterhouse, it leaves you wondering. Was Rick's stint in Scarface's crew an attempt to get close to his enemy in order to take revenge. It seemed like nothing of the sort at the time. Di Leo does so little with the revenge storyline that you could believe that whether Rick or Tony would be the avenger might have come down to a coin flip. For a story element introduced at the start of the film, it seems a lot like an afterthought, and it really is superfluous, adding nothing to the film.

Al Cliver has his revenge. So?

We're dealing with something far below the level of di Leo's earlier trilogy, but the film has its moments. Most of these are later action scenes, including Tony leading a foot chase through the streets of Rome as well as the big finale at the slaughterhouse, which includes machine guns, a dude on a meathook, motorcycle jumping, gigantic walkie-talkie antennae and an exploding car. Also, few di Leo films, it seems, are complete without a nightclub scene with some hot nearly naked women dancing, and in this respect Mister Scarface does not disappoint. Nor is it lacking in the music department, as Luis Enriquez Bacalov contributes a tense score that never succumbs to comic temptations.

My copy of Il Padrone della Citta is a crappy fullscreen edition that's one of five films in Pop Flix's cheapo Mafia Kingpin collection, which also includes three widescreen Umberto Lenzi cop films and Bruno Corbucci's Cop in Blue Jeans. I don't know if better copies are available, but regardless of condition, as long as you don't expect something with the power of Il Boss or Calibro 9 and you like Jack Palance, you should find Mister Scarface a mildly entertaining trifle for an hour and a half.

There's no trailer on line, but oneinchpunch77 has uploaded an American radio spot to YouTube.