Saturday, April 30, 2011

MOTHER JOAN OF THE ANGELS (Matka Joanna od Aniolow, 1961)

What do all those women do behind those convent walls? That's the question behind the nunsploitation subgenre, a global phenomenon that found expression inside the old Communist Bloc with this film by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Some accounts of this movie claim that it's loosely based on the same historical incidents that inspired Ken Russell's ultimate nunsploitation epic, The Devils. If so, then it's more of a loose thematic sequel to that core story, with the charismatic priest played by Oliver Reed in the Russell film already dead by the time Kawalerowicz's film begins. Adapting a Polish novella, Kawalerowicz gives the story a different emphasis that makes Mother Joan more than an alternate version of The Devils while still touching many of the mandatory nunsploitation bases.

The story focuses on Father Joseph Suryn, newly arrived in a village dominated by a convent swept by demonic possession. The young priest has been sent to aid in a long-term exorcism project; the entire convent, led by the title nun, seems to be possessed. Suryn is unworldly and aloof, while in the village the possessions and exorcisms are the stuff of gossip as well as superstition. What gives Mother Joan its distinctive quality is the way both the possessions and the exorcisms are treated as an almost-normalized public spectacle. The villagers gather to watch the nuns march into church, the next-to-last in line spinning around compulsively, and subject themselves to attempted exorcism. The efforts of the priests only inspire the nuns to frenzy, with Mother Joan herself the most flamboyant performer. In some way the spectacle resembles a show trial, except that justice, or the will of God, never seems to prevail, while the suspects freely confess their guilt yet refuse to repent. One character suggests that Christians embrace the concept of demonic possession because it somehow confirms the existence of God, and that seems to be a key to understanding this film.

Lucyna Winnicka is possessed by the turbulent spirit of Mother Joan of the Angels.

Along the way, Suryn gets a major crush on Mother Joan. He tries to deal with it by flogging himself, but to no avail. Trying to get to the bottom of the possession question, he consults a Jewish rabbi who harangues him about the angels who mated humans and spawned a race of giants and finally tells Suryn that the two of them are the same. Given that they're played by the same actor, Mieczyslaw Volt, the rabbi has a point, though that fact also raises the question of whether the meeting was real or only in Suryn's head. In any event, Suryn finally decides that the only thing he can do to save Joan, and in some way save himself, is to invite the devils inside her to take him over. In fact, this licenses him to let the demons already inside him rise to the surface, with dire consequences for some of the other villagers....

Mother Joan is not one of the "history of cruelty" films I've seen from all over Europe from the 1960s. Kawalerowicz doesn't make a fetish of the ordeals to which Joan is subjected, and we never see anyone burnt at the prominently displayed stake. His attitude toward the people of 17th century Poland is generally compassionate. The common folk are folksy and bawdy and musical and superstitious, unafraid to peep through a window to watch Suryn and Joan in bed together. This movie isn't really about the overwhelming oppressive power of the state or the church, focusing instead on one man's breakdown and its several causes. Volt makes the breakdown convincing, while Lucyna Winnicka in the title role catches the unstable ambiguity of a character self-consciously committed to her role in the exorcism drama. She tells Suryn that she enjoys being possessed; is she acting possessed when she says that, or is she embracing the liberating power of performance? Whatever the answer, it's all too much for poor Suryn, and the two characters arguably illustrate a dangerous distinction between internalized private and dramatized public religion, the one corrupting the other.

On the nunsploitation spectrum Mother Joan falls closer to the high-end, high-toned stuff like Black Narcissus than to the wild, salacious fare that gives the subgenre its name. Nudity is at a minimum here and there's no hint of lesbianism. That may disappoint hardcore nunsploitation fans, but if you just like to see women in habits acting nutty, this film as plenty of that to offer. In the bargain, you'll also get a persuasive period piece with strong performances that are marred somewhat by the awful English subtitles on the Polstar DVD. Spelling and grammar errors abound, and some lines simply don't make sense as translated. Fortunately, the story still makes sense and you can still appreciate the overall effort. This is another film of surprisingly subversive potential from a Communist country, and an interesting one by any country's standard.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


The Japanese direcor Seijun Suzuki is notorious for making genre films that became such eccentric expressions of personal style that they got him fired from the Nikkatsu Studio. This particular film comes late in his Nikkatsu tenure but finds him on relatively good behavior from the studio's standpoint. Tattooed Life is a fairly conventional drama that brackets a story of working class life and doomed romance with outbursts of yakuza violence. It's in vivid color but could pass for one of the black-and-white "Nikkatsu Noirs" or "cosmopolitan" films Suzuki had made while paying his dues at the studio.

Like many of the Nikkatsu Noirs collected in Criterion Eclipse's essential box set, Tattooed Life deals with characters who are waiting for a chance at a better life. But while the "cosmopolitan" films are set in their present day, Suzuki's film is a period piece, set in 1926, aka Showa Year One, the first year of Emperor Hirohito's reign. The heroes' waiting, meanwhile, is complicated by the fact that they're fugitives from justice. Testu (Hideki Takahashi) is a yakuza, nicknamed "the White Fox," who recently carried out a hit but is now targeted for one by his own bosses. His younger brother Kenji (Kotobuki Hananamoto) aspires to attend art school, but when he sees his brother set upon by the killers, he impulsively kills one of them. Guilt-stricken, he wants to turn himself in to the police, but Testu can't stand the thought of the gentle youth in prison and proposes that they run off together.

They end up in a port city in northern Japan where business is booming. Well before Japan invaded Manchuria, Japanese migrant workers were making a living there, and that's where the brothers intend to make a fresh start. But they have to start from scratch after they get swindled by a local bar owner who promises to get them passage on a steamer. They end up going to work on a tunnel construction project for the Yamashita family, and once they settle in to the working-class community of roughnecks and losers, each gets a romantic storyline. Interestingly, Kenji ends up falling dangerously for the boss's wife, while his elder brother, a more reticent Tetsu, struggles to resist the affections of the boss's daughter. Tetsu has kept aloof from the crowd, notably refusing to bathe with his co-workers. The reason, of course, is that he doesn't want to show the tattoos that identify him as a yakuza. Once badges of pride and belonging, Tetsu now regards them as brands of shame. He isn't like that any more, which is what they all say just before the past comes strolling into town to prove them wrong.

The tunnel workers are capable of some rough justice themselves. Here they subject one of their own to water torture to find out who's been sabotaging their project.

Thanks to its nuanced portraits of the brothers and the people around them, Tattooed Life ends up being one of the most humane of the Suzuki films I've seen to date. It's also one of the most naturalistic, making good use of outdoor locations on the coast and along a river. Suzuki saves his more typical pyrotechnics for the very end of the picture, when Testu at last puts on his "White Fox" kimono and settles scores. The director has Takahashi run amok in a traditional home, stepping through layers of passageways deeper into the frame, then racing horizontally across the wide screen to engage the enemy. Suzuki catches the action from above and below, shooting down from an imaginary ceiling and up through a transparent floor. If anything, the gimmickry seems wrong because Suzuki has been so restrained until then, but the dynamism of it all overcomes any objections.

In one respect, Tattooed Life is more noirish than the so-called "noirs" marketed by Criterion. Those films often had happy endings, or at least victories for their protagonists, but Suzuki's movie takes the more familiar noir line that one can never really escape the past, especially when you have to answer for it. The villains are defeated, of course, but the film ends with one brother dead and the other going to jail, with romance possibly to come only after more years of waiting. Despite the violent climax, this is a sobering rather than exhilarating story, and it may be the last time that Suzuki could really take the genre seriously. It was worth his trouble to do so.

Monday, April 25, 2011


One of the most frequently repeated criticisms I've read of David O. Russell's latest film is that it ended too early. Reviewers familiar with "Irish" Micky Ward's career often opined that the film would have had a more fitting climax had it shown Ward's fights with Arturo Gatti, which are considered some of the best, from an action standpoint, of the last decade. Never mind that Ward lost two of three of those bouts; they're all presumed to be more dramatic or cinematic than the fight in which Ward actually won his championship and which closes The Fighter. These complaints missed the point. The complainers thought they were watching a boxing movie, or The Micky Ward Story, instead of the film Russell made, which is about something else.

The confusion may be understandable given that the film is named after Mark Wahlberg's character and that Wahlberg has top billing. But you may recall that Christian Bale won an Oscar for playing Ward's crackhead brother, and that Melissa Leo won an Oscar for playing their trashy, controlling, clannish mother, while Wahlberg went home empty-handed. That's because he walked into a kind of trap. Sometimes the lead actor or star is doomed to have his film stolen from him by a flamboyant supporting player. But The Fighter is a film designed to be stolen from its star by everyone else on screen. This isn't Wahlberg's fault, unless you blame him for taking the part in the first place. He actually gives a very creditable performance, but the story requires Micky Ward, the ostensible man of violence, to be the relatively calm, almost passive center of a maelstrom of dysfunction. Everyone in his orbit is some sort of white-trash gargoyle, including not just his mother and brother but all his shrieking skanky sisters and even his otherwise sympathetic girlfriend (Amy Adams was also nominated for an Oscar), who becomes as territorial and possessive toward Micky while protecting him from his kin as they've been protecting him from her. The irony of the piece is that Micky doesn't see why everyone should be fighting over him. Forced into an either-or choice late in the picture, he rejects it. The film's been setting us up to want him make a clean break from his dreadful family, but at the climax, which comes before the title fight, he insists that he can't walk away from either his family or his girlfriend or his new handlers -- he needs them all on his side to prevail. There's something almost wholesome about the film's endorsement of compromise, however anticlimactic it may seem in performance. And when you consider that that's Wahlberg's big moment rather than any fight he's in, you see why he's been eclipsed, however unfairly, by his supporting cast.

By comparison, Christian Bale dominates the film as if this were the Dicky Eklund comeback story that his character presumes that the HBO crew is shooting as they follow him into crack dens. Look at the poster above and tell me who the star is. If you told me that second-billed Bale actually had more screen time than top-billed Wahlberg, I'd believe it. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with this, except that it doesn't make sense to nominate such a performance for Best Supporting Actor. Bale is clearly the co-star of the movie and the Academy should have treated him as such. As for Melissa Leo and the other performers, I'm not familiar enough with them to judge their skills as actors, but they were uniformly convincing in their trashy roles, while Russell planted them in an equally convincing milieu. Style takes second place to storytelling here, and that's appropriate for the subject matter.

Micky Ward presumably had his family issues straightened out by the time he fought Arturo Gatti, so from Russell's standpoint there wasn't really a story left to tell, however dramatic fight fans found those battles. But I can understand the reviewers somewhat. A few years ago, after watching Cinderella Man, I thought that Ron Howard should have ended it with Jim Braddock losing his title to Joe Louis, one hero yielding his place to a greater, but not without a valiant struggle. Given that Braddock did floor Louis during that fight, I felt that it had real dramatic potential. But Howard had told the story of overcoming adversity and despair that he wanted to tell, and I don't think his film is really worse for ending when it did. The same goes for The Fighter. Sometimes boxing films are about more than boxing, and then the last thing they need is more boxing.

...But for those who are curious, here's the sequel, Ward-Gatti I, as condensed and uploaded to YouTube by the folks at HBO.

April 28th: And here's another sequel: Alice Ward, the fighters' mother, passed away this week.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN (36 vues du Pic St-Loup, 2009)

After more than fifty years, the surviving directors of the French New Wave are the elder statesmen of global cinema. Their ranks have been thinning gradually -- Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol died last year -- but recent years have also seen a spate of activity from the old gang, including this latest film from Jacques Rivette. Known for making films of extraordinary length, Rivette got 36 vues du Pic St-Loup in under 90 minutes, and that's really about all the story needs. It's a familiar, archetypal sort of story about a man who runs away to join the circus. More accurately, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) stops in the middle of a journey to join a circus. He's followed Kate (Jane Birkin) there after helping repair her car on the road, and his vague interest in her becomes an obsession with the circus to which she once belonged and has returned. Something about circus life fascinates him beyond reason; he laughs like a rube at an unenthusiastically performed clown skit, yet also seeks to advise the head clown on how to improve the act. He becomes a bystander in the standard personal dramas of circus life and is accepted as part of the landscape if not part of the extended circus family until he is recruited to perform in the very routine that first captivated him.

While the Nouveau Vague is probably ancient history for many movie fans today, Rivette's film reminded me of even more ancient history. Around a Small Mountain is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's The Circus in its attempt to find a kind of humor in the protagonist's failure to be funny in a conventional way. That is, Chaplin's tramp tries to do things funny in the circus way but fails, yet becomes a star accidentally by just happening to stumble into the center ring in a funny way. In Rivette's film, Vittorio thinks the lame clown routine (one cajoles another into trying to catch a bullet with his teeth) is hilarious, and thinks he could make it even more funny. But when the opportunity is thrust upon him to perform the skit, he forgets the lines, tries desperately to improvise (as the lead clown heroically tries to keep up) and finally rampages around the stage waving a (loaded?) gun as the lead clown tries to talk him down. This isn't necessarily funny (I found it so) but the point seems to be that here, on the stage, Vittorio finally has to work out some of the issues that have kept him here rather than finishing his journey. Rivette seems to be saying something about performance as a form of intimate expression. He says it most blatantly in a scene near the end in which Vittorio and some circus folk have what sounds like an ordinary chat. But instead of filming the dialogue in one shot, or cutting from Vittorio to the circus folk, Rivette has each character walk out of a tent to perform his or her line, exit stage left or right to make room for the next actor, then go through the tent again to do the next line. Again, the idea may be that everyday life for everyone is a kind of performance, an idea echoed in Kate's storyline, in which her return to performing is a quest for redemption or closure following a fatal accident in her past.

Rivette tells his little story in a potentially alienating way. His circus is not about entertainment in any recognizable way. It's either too poor to afford musical accompaniment or else including music didn't occur to or interest him -- or else that's just how the smaller European circuses work. But it makes the routines look particularly lifeless, as does the lack of audience response, though that does serve to highlight Vittorio's exceptional response to the clown skit. This also reminded me of Chaplin and his failure to include a laugh track for his vaudeville routines in Limelight. The reason then was that he expected the actual movie audience to do the laughing, while for Rivette, I suspect, the main idea is that audience response matters less than whatever the circus performers get out of performing for themselves.

However you interpret it, the story's a trifle, but it is a pretty one. Sergio Castellitto is an increasingly familiar face around the wild world of cinema, having turned up even in a Narnia movie, and so far I've liked him whenever I've seen him. He keeps this film watchable even if Vittorio's character arc proves inscrutable. I've only seen one other Rivette movie and assume that this one's far from his best work. But I found it a work of strong artistic personality, however vague or abstract he gets, and it leaves me still willing to discover more of his work.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


To be honest, I have stronger memories of the Tron video game than I do of the 1982 film that after 28 years -- is that some sort of record? -- generated a sequel. I remember seeing the original on the big screen, and I know I saw it at least once on video -- but apart from the then-innovative visuals and certain verbal tics like "End of Line," little about it made an impression on me. Many other people must have had a different experience, as I assume the sequel was made to satisfy Eighties nostalgia as well as to show off Disney's current bag of 3D and IMAX tricks. On that assumption, I shouldn't have been surprised to see the film burdened with so much of the "fathers and sons" bushwah, though for once I can complain that a movie doesn't push this theme hard enough. That's not -- I assure you -- because I find the usual intergenerational guff compelling. Too often "fathers and sons" seems like a gimmick designed to make a film seem meaningful. With Joseph Kosinski's Tron: Legacy, however, the filmmakers had the material for an ultimate "fathers and sons" story, but largely ignored it.

What is Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) if not the god of the merry little world of anthropomorphisized programs he helped create within that wonderful computer above the old video arcade? Add in his lookalike program, Clu, who plays the jealous, vindictive demiurge after seizing power from Flynn and his faithful e-companion Tron, and Flynn's real-world offspring Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who manages to get digitized the same way his father did way back when, and you have a holy trinity at war with itself. Or you could have had it. But since this is a "fathers and sons" movie, Sam is interested only incidentally in redeeming the world within the computer, and primarily in saving his dad. Dad's not that interested in being saved, if only because he can't imagine it being done without opening the door for Clu to run amok in the flesh world, and he isn't even that interested in saving his world, since he considers a rebellion inevitable and is willing to simply let it happen. For his part, Clu protests his purity of motive, insisting that he has only fulfilled his User's mandate to perfect the program world. Gladiatorial combat, it seems, is a prerequisite for perfection. On the other hand, he seems to enjoy power too much in a swaggering, virtual Jeff Bridges kind of way. Whatever else you say about Tron: Legacy, it does give Academy Award Winner Jeff Bridges a double ham sandwich of opportunity. He provides the skeleton of Clu's performance to play off his slightly Dudish, slightly Jedi-ish Kevin Flynn and indulges both selves, really letting it rip in his climactic showdown with himself. It is a rare master thespian who can pull off a "fathers and sons" scenario entirely on his own -- and maybe it's regrettable that CGI isn't yet so far advanced that he could have played Garrett Hedlund's part as well.

"They stole my monolith, man! It really held the room together." Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, right) abides.

But Tron: Legacy is nothing if not a laundry list of opportunities ignored. Its biggest disappointment is how ordinary its fantasy world seems, or how like a vodka advertisement it often looks. Nothing afterward ever lives up to its one ingeniously disturbing sequence, after Sam has been digitized, arrested for vagrancy and condemned to the games. He's left in a vast chamber, where from the four walls emerge identically, fetishistically dressed females equipped with laser-tip fingers who first strip and then prep Sam for combat. The identically coiffed women -- two black, two white -- move in an unnatural, robotic choreography for no apparent reason, since the ritual isn't being transmitted anywhere, as far as I could tell. No other "programs" behave this way, and when we encounter one of them again, it's surprising that she doesn't live in her little alcove at the arena. The scene is obviously designed to be erotic on a superficially wholesome level -- the women are fully dressed -- but it also meets, however momentarily, our expectation of how strange this world should be.

I can predict at least one scene in Tron Legacy: the XXX Parody.

For the most part, however, the programs are all too human, or all too cartoonish. One wonders what the original program function of Castor (Michael Sheen), a pale, flamboyant fixer whom Sam is sent to meet, could possibly have been. But I suppose the point of such personalities is to show how decentralized sentience has evolved in that lonely computer over the arcade. It's even evolved entire neo-aboriginal species from nothing. All this should serve to remind viewers to schedule their antivirus programs to run regularly. Look what might become of your computer after 30 years.

If this isn't a malicious file, what is? Michael Sheen (center) as Castor.

The Tron sequel is less interested in such eccentricities than it should be. Castor is really the way he is because that's the kind of character who always turns up in utterly generic adventure stories like this one. Look past the fancy graphics and it's the same story you've seen hundreds of times. An unlikely hero must recover the special artifact that opens the portal to redemption with the aid of a loyal band, not all of whom will be able to go through with him. There must be sacrifices and arguments about sacrifices, the eternal choice between personal loyalties and the mission. And it's about fathers and sons! That doesn't mean there isn't some spectacle to enjoy -- and it was probably more enjoyable on the really big screen. But Legacy isn't anything more than cinematic candy, and not the kind that's filling in any way. It's like a box of Runts: tasty enough in a tangy chemical way, but you wouldn't want to be stuck somewhere for two hours with only those to eat.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

VENUS IN FURS (Paroxismus, 1969)

Jazz musician Jimmy Logan seems to be recovering from a bad trip -- he digs his trumpet out of the sand and can't remember why he buried it -- when a body washes up on a beach to launch him on an even worse trip. Jimmy recognizes the body and can even guess why she's dead. He witnessed the gang-rape of Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm) by three decadent characters in Istanbul -- but apparently did nothing. It's not clear whether people know generally that Wanda is dead. At least no one but Jimmy bats an eye when she turns up, live as life, in Rio during the Carnival. One of her tormentors is also there, but he ends up dead. In fact, Wanda has somehow loved or at least stimulated him to death (hence the movie's alternate title). She'll repeat that trick elsewhere on the globe, somehow following Jimmy as he goes from gig to gig like her spotter, to take out a bisexual woman (Margaret Lee) and Ahmet (Klaus Kinski), who either has a turban fetish or is supposed to be a Turkish man. Wanda's mysterious movements pretty much kill Jimmy's interracial buzz with nightclub singer Rita (Barbara McNair), but obsessions are like that. And when all's said and done Jimmy's back on the beach playing a personal requiem for Wanda, only to see a body wash up on the beach. So is it one of those movies where the hapless hero has to repeat the story over and over for eternity? No, because this time the body is different, and the difference is twist enough for this picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, James Darren on trumpet and Jess Franco at the keyboard.

I'm tempted to shrug my shoulders and say, "Well, that's Jess Franco for you," but Paroxismus is actually one of the Spanish director's more accessible movies. What I mean is that, despite its impenetrable story, which bears no relation to the Sacher-Masoch novel it's sometimes named for, it's mostly free of Franco's signature idiosyncrasies and personal mythology. While we do get one of his favorite motifs, a singer writhing on her back, there's no "Dr. Orloff" or "Morpho" running around, at least in the English-language version. Venus in Furs takes us to a very strange place, but it isn't Jess Franco's personal world. Franco just makes it compellingly colorful and musical, if also a bit campy and sensual at the same time.

Above, Maria Rohm puts the moves on Margaret Lee. Below, Klaus Kinski contemplates his ill-fated one-man show about the Prophet Muhammad.

The movie actually sustains an air of genuine supernatural mystery until the ending leaves the story making almost no sense whatsoever. As I said, it's unclear how many people know that Wanda is dead, and it's even less clear whether anyone's investigating her apparently unnatural demise. The story as told may be possible only in the absence of a criminal justice system. But given what we can assume finally to be Jimmy's special perspective, can we really be sure that Wanda is dead. On the other hand, what we learn about Jimmy makes his relationship with Rita hard to explain -- except if we assume that his interpretation of his final vision is unreliable. For that matter, the entire film may be nothing but Jimmy's jazzy delirium on the beach, his fantasy of supernatural vengeance substituting for the steps he was apparently incapable of taking to secure justice for Wanda. At its trippy heart, Paroxismus may simply be a guilt trip.

If you're willing to do the interpretive work on your own, you could well appreciate Franco's film as an impressionistic puzzle, a set of variations on an ultimately hidden theme. But you could just as easily dismiss Paroxismus as reels of incoherent pretension, redeemed or not by visual flair and period flavor. It seems appropriate, somehow, that this movie is ultimately whatever each viewer makes of it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fellini's CLOWNS (1970)

Why "clowns?" Why did Federico Fellini call his made-for-TV essay film I Clowns in Italian? It's not as if Italian doesn't have a word for the vocation, but it eventually sunk in to my initially obtuse skull that had he called the movie I Pagliacci, both Italian and English speaking audiences would have gone in expecting a very different movie. With the title accounted for, that leaves us the film itself to ponder. I Clowns comes from a period when Fellini seemed to be adapting the devices of Italian mondo movies to his particular sensibility. Working for television with a documentary mandate apparently sparked a creative process beginning with his American TV special, Fellini: A Director's Notebook, which he made while transitioning from an aborted sci-fi film to his Roman spectacle Satyricon. With Satyricon done, he returned to essay mode for Clowns, Roma and Amarcord. By the end, he'd personalized the format enough to dispense with any pretense of documentation, and what sets his work apart from mondo in general is the understanding that Fellini will show us re-enactments of actuality without pretending to show us "reality." Mondo pioneers Giacopetti & Prosperi were headed in the same direction with Goodbye Uncle Tom, but even then, while recreating the distant past, there was a pretense of objectivity, an implicit claim to show things as they were, that Fellini doesn't really require us to accept. Clowns actually invites us to call every documentary pretense into question. The director shows himself directing the film and has his assistant Maya Morin read much of the narration on screen, as if we were seeing "The Making of I Clowns" rather than the thing itself. The tactic also creates the impression that everything we see, and not just the obvious re-creations, could be scripted rather than spontaneous. Anita Ekberg's allegedly accidental appearance (she's supposedly shopping for a panther)only adds to that impression.

Fellini admits to being fascinated by grotesque freaks throughout his life. How do you feel about that, Anita?

Fellini also plays with the question of whether cinema can capture or preserve reality. In two different scenes, he makes an appointment to see rare film footage of famous clowns. The first time, at the home of a collector, the old film breaks and ignites in the projector. The second time, at a Paris archive, Fellini has a hard time determining whether the clip shows the clown he's looking for, and in any event the footage is much too short to make any impression. The director's disappointments seem linked to his implicit thesis about the incompatibility of cinema and classical clowning. The film opens with a surprising confession: the young Fellini (so the older man claims) was, if not frightened, then strongly disturbed by clowns when he first attended a circus. They reminded him too strongly, he recounts, of the disturbed or merely grotesque people he saw everyday in the real world. Those people, to a great extent, became the subject of Fellini's cinema, which evolved into an often literally circus-like spectacle of eccentricity. When the RAI TV project (originally broadcast in black-and-white on Christmas Day 1970 and subsequently released to theaters in color) gave Fellini the opportunity to film a literal circus, the result is problematic.

Circus clowning is arguably uncinematic when it involves bunches of clowns doing their shtick simultaneously while playing to different sections of the audience in different directions. The individual performance style is also uncinematic, as studios learned when they recruited circus clowns for silent comedies. Fellini can show us presumably acclaimed clowns doing their stuff, but as long as he sticks to documentary mode much of it leaves a moviegoer feeling underwhelmed. Things change when the director stages a center-ring funeral for "Augusto," one of the archetypal clown characters, for his climax. This is a true Fellini-esque spectacle, but the director portrays himself taking things too far. He wants to close it with the big Fellini finish, with clowns parading around the ring, but he makes the veteran clowns hustle around and around repeatedly, faster and faster each time, as if he were shooting They Shoot Clowns, Don't They? Many of the clowns simply can't keep up and have to step out of the ring to recuperate. While clearly sending up his own reputation for excess, Fellini also seems to answer his film's question, "Where are the old clowns?" by showing us symbolically that cinema did them in. While the film actually closes with a sentimental horn duet for two clowns in an empty ring, the climax that comes before gives the more modest scene the air of a requiem.

Like many a mondo, I Clowns is a hit-or-miss project. Most of the film lacks the creative engagement Fellini brings to the funeral scene, and while many individual scenes are beautifully done (particularly the Fratelli brothers' tense performance on wires in an insane asylum) many are also empty spectacles that exist only for illustration. As someone who knew next to nothing about clown history, I found the discussions of augustos and white clowns fascinating, but Fellini's presentation only whetted my appetite for more detailed accounts of famous personalities like the Fratellis than his format allowed. The film's limitations show Fellini grappling with a new mode of moviemaking that will bear fruit in the much superior Roma and Amarcord. Clowns itself remains a historically important film as an episode in the director's creative evolution, with one brilliant sequence to redeem it for movie fans in general.

I don't know if this is an authentic theatrical trailer, but rarovideousa has posted it to YouTube to promote last month's U.S. DVD premiere of the movie.

Friday, April 15, 2011


He lives in a storm drain, so he has to go out when it rains, but Simon Sinestrari has a dream. Already one of the world's few genuine magicians by his own account, he hopes to become equal to the gods, and while banishing a glowing red orb he proclaims, "I am God!" Right there you see he isn't entirely full of it; he can banish a glowing red orb. But to most casual observers, Simon (Andrew Prine) is little more than a bum. The cops pick him up on one of his rainy walks and rifle his gear in search of drug paraphernalia before tossing him in the jug for vagrancy. There he befriends a naive young hustler of the sort you'd see in movies back then. Turk (George Paulsin) takes it for granted that Simon is what he says it is and invites him into the orbit of Hercules (Byron York), a wealthy patron of eccentrics. However patronized he may feel, Simon embraces any opportunity to make money, and he demands fair value for his work. When a contemptuous skeptic thinks to repay the assumed fraud in kind with a bad check that gets him arrested again, Simon demands compensation, but an increasingly bored Hercules asks why Simon doesn't use his vaunted powers to avenge himself. Simon takes that as a dare and asks if Hercules really wants him to curse the guy. Eager to see Simon put up or shut up, Hercules confirms the dare, and Simon announces that the offender will die within two days. Right on schedule, the writer of bad checks gets brained by a flower pot pushed from the roof of a tall building by a glowing red orb while the victim gazes upward as if paralyzed. Simon has just killed a man, but the most bother that causes is when Hercules finds himself haunted by a glowing red orb, and Simon takes care of that by releasing his onetime patron from his vow to share half the guilt for the curse. Then it's on to new adventures as Simon strives to charge a wand with occult energy, first by seducing a girl, then by menacing a gay man, so that he can claim his place among the gods at exactly 1:33 p.m. on an auspicious day. Imagine how he'd feel and what he'd do if he misses his appointment, and the police are to blame....

Bruce Kessler's picaresque horror film is built around a genuinely unpredictable main character. I'm still not sure, however, if that's because writer Robert Phippeny (reputedly a practicing magician) and star Andrew Prine have tapped into an authentic ambiguity or ambivalence or because Phippeny lacked a consistent sense of Simon's personality. His opening address to the audience notwithstanding, Simon isn't the sort of flamboyant, affected personality one might expect in a "real" magician. He states his business in a flat, matter-of-fact way, and comes across most of the time as much as a curmudgeon as a mountebank. He regards the people around him with a detached, sardonic contempt that's appropriate for someone who sees others as means to his own delusional end. As a result, Simon is often a humorous character, as when he proposes a "magical" cure for Turk's inconvenient (but conveniently unillustrated) case of priapism. The overall tone of the film is quite satirical, sending up freak-chic poseurs like Hercules and the more blatant showmanship of rival magicians like the wiccan Sarah (Ultra Violet), whom Simon mocks by breaking a "witch's" broom to disrupt her ritual. Many reviewers describe Simon as a black comedy rather than a horror film, and that may explain why Simon's crimes don't provoke the horror they ought to. If everyone is fair game for mockery, it's hard to mourn for anyone.

That Phippeny and Kessler meant Simon as a satire of a subculture rather than a shocker is clear from the lackluster effects whenever Simon shows his real power. Magic is mostly a matter of glowing red orbs and other glowy effects, while the big "psychedelic" scene when Simon steps into a mirror in search of power is too derivative of the 2001:A Space Odyssey "trip" (Kessler reports that he employed some of the same FX people) to make any real impression. The effects are inevitably disappointing, but not inappropriate for a film built around a character with real magical powers who is also a loser. You get the feeling that Simon will never transcend his Skid Row milieu when you see how easily he can be distracted by the troubles of two drug-pusher pals into forgetting his scheduled assault on heaven. He can rage at the gods all he wants, but the gutter pulls on him too strongly. Prine pulls off what's asked of him; he makes you believe such people (albeit powerless) were wandering around California back then. If he has limitations, they seem to be Simon's as well. Apart from his performance, Simon works as an exploitation film thanks to plenty of irreverent nudity and sexual humor -- though some of that humor is ickily homophobic by today's standards. Some of it is spot on, though, as when a naked woman used as a living altar tries to shoo away a curious chauffeur-clad Turk by declaring, "I'm an occult object." The story falls apart toward the end when Simon curses the city by causing floods and framing officials for crimes and the curse rebounds awkwardly on him, but Simon, King of the Witches is a period artifact that's problematic in a consistently interesting way. It's less than it could be, but still more than meets the eye.

Director Kessler says the producers messed with his movie to turn it into an exploitation film. Judge for yourself by watching the oldschool ballyhoo on this trailer, uploaded to YouTube by jeffkostello.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

GOYOKIN (1969)

It is the way of the samurai to protect the interests of his domain. The well being of hundreds of retainers may depend on his actions. When the domain of Sabai falls on hard times, what is Rokugo Tatewaki to do? For him, the way of the samurai is piracy. When a ship bearing goyokin -- precious metals destined for the government reserves -- runs aground in his territory, Rokugo and his men seize the gold and silver from the peasants and fishermen who'd salvaged it from the wreck. The way of the samurai is slaughter: to cover up the crime, Tatewaki has the villagers slaughtered. They can be blamed for the theft and punished for it, while the loot was supposedly never recovered.

Magobei Wakizaka (Tatsuya Nakadai) isn't so sure about the way of the samurai. He comes late upon the scene and sees innocents butchered, including a woman in her wedding kimono. He protests to Tatewaki (Tetsuro Tanba), a longtime friend and his brother-in-law, who urges him not to report the deed to the bakufu -- the shogunate administration. In return for his silence, Magobei extracts a promise that Tatewaki will never pull such a stunt again. Satisfied, Magobei retires to Edo. Over time, a legend spreads about the ruined village, that it was annihilated by the kamikakushi, a divine curse symbolized by flocks of crows, except for one survivor, a woman who's seen as lucky or accursed, depending on your point of view. She's the first character we meet in Hideo Gosha's colorful thriller, as she returns to her village after a term of indenture in a textile town. She finds the village deserted except for crows. As she searches for her father or any sign of life, the movie gradually goes silent. No music, no dialogue, and finally no sound effects, until Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka) finds a body. It's an eerie moment and typical of the movie's idiosyncratic outbursts of style in the midst of a well-made thriller plot. Later, Gosha transforms crows in mid-flight into ideograms to announce a leap forward in time. Experimental or expressionist or simply indulgent moments like these may reflect the influence of spaghetti westerns on the samurai genre that itself influenced the Italian movies. What goes around comes around.

The man in the hat above is Magobei Wakizaka (Tatsuya Nakadai) and he's about to put on a show.

We first meet Magobei in Edo, where samurai stalk him amid a sideshow of swordsmanship. When they try to kill him, and he recognizes the dead as Sabei men, he realizes that Tatewaki no longer trusts him to keep silent -- or, worse, that Tatewaki assumes that he won't keep silent should the goyokin incident repeat itself. The stage is set as the Sabei clan discusses the funds needed for an extensive improvement project. Where will the money come from? Not knowing this, but suspecting the worst, Magobei heads north to Sabei, but not before making his money-hungry ronin crony Samon (Kinnosuke Nakamura) interested in what might be going on. On his way, Magobei encounters Oriha of the Kamikakushi, who has become an alcoholic gambler with her "brother" Rokuzo (Ben Hiura) as a shill. Magobei saves them from a gang of angry yakuza that caught Oriha clumsily cheating. Meanwhile, Tatewaki realizes that Magobei is coming and will probably have to die, but wants a peaceful way out. He has his sister Shino (Yoko Tsukasa) go to Magobei and urge him to go back where he came from with her and Tatewaki's best wishes. But the way of the samurai as Magobei sees it requires him to atone for his past error and ensure that justice is done for the victims of the "kamikakushi." Warned that confronting Tatewaki means certain death, Magobei says that he's dead already, and will stay dead until justice and true honor are satisfied....

Goyokin is a great adventure film, beautifully shot in the snowy landscapes of northern Japan and performed by an excellent ensemble cast. It's a debunking anti-authority film, exposing "the way of the samurai" as men like Tatewaki see it as an immoral system of oppression and cruelty. At the same time, Tatewaki isn't a pure villain. He really doesn't want to kill Magobei until the very end, and there's something poignant about the way he fails to understand the wrong of what he's doing. If it is wrong, he blames the bakufu for impoverishing Sabei and forcing his hand. We're near the end of the shogunate, the story being set in 1831, and no one seems happy with the bakufu. A character who works for the government eventually states that he's tired of being the bakufu's dog. There seems to be no authority worthy of an honest samurai's loyalty. If there is a way of the samurai worth following, each man must find it with justice as his guide.

But action fans can skip the message and enjoy a slick thriller. Gosha and co-writer Kei Tasaka skillfully gather a motley group of heroes and potential heroes and find a task for each of them. Tatewaki's master plan is to misplace a giant signal bonfire that the goyokin ship navigates by. If he snuffs the bonfire on one cliff and lights one on another, he expects to trick the ship's captain to steer straight into the rocks. He'll then send villagers out, coercing the men by taking the women and children captive, to retrieve the goyokin. Only the bloody cleanup will remain. To thwart Tatewaki, Magobei and his friends must rescue both the village men and the hostages, snuff the false bonfire and re-light the correct one -- and nothing's going to happen without a fight. And it'll all go down in the middle of a winter storm. For the occasion, Gosha puts on a brilliant show of timing and crosscutting, producing one of the most suspenseful sequences I've seen in a samurai film.

I've already implied that Tetsuro Tanba gives a strong performance as the conflicted villain, and kudos are due as well to Ruriko Asaoka for her spunky surliness and to Kinnosuke Nakamura for making his questionable ronin consistently likable yet consistently questionable. But this is Tatsuya Nakadai's show, and he is terrific. He's a master of dignified, soulful indignation and he convinces you that Magobei has been suffering inside for his one moral slip, not by emoting but with his eyes and his posture. I've liked Nakadai in just about everything I've seen him in (most readers will most likely know him from Kurosawa's Ran) and it's a shame that, still living, he still dwells in the shadow of Toshiro Mifune in most people's eyes. Mifune may have been the greater star with the greater persona, but Nakadai may well be the better actor with the greater range.

There's something special about action in winter, whether you're watching a western, a modern crime film or a samurai movie. Goyokin is probably one of the best winter action films ever made, though there's also plenty of rain and muck along the way for contrast. It's one of those rare films that can be appreciated visually as a work of art and enjoyed viscerally for violent thrills. In short, it should have something for everyone, unless you really can't stand subtitles -- and then you might try to find a copy of The Steel Edge of Revenge, a dubbed edition released in the U.S. in the 1970s. If I ask you to go to that trouble, then consider this film highly recommended.

Manos99 has uploaded a subtitled trailer to YouTube. Calling itself "an entertaining samurai film" is really being modest.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wendigo Meets VAMPIRE HUNTER (1997-2004)

Can you make a decent vampire movie on a $5,000 budget. My friend Wendigo, a vampire-movie fan, thinks it's possible. You'd have to do a character-driven, intimate story, going easy on the mythos and effects. The key, he thinks, is not trying to do something you can't pull off on the budget you have, unless you can come up with a way of making it look interesting. Skip the shape-changing and other stunts; you still really need no more than a pair of fangs to get the point across. Jean Rollin is an example of someone who got by on style and story sense without elaborate makeups. The recent British film Vampire Diary is another successful example in Wendigo's opinion.

Sean Gallimore
claims to have spent no more than $5,000 on Vampire Hunter, a film shot on video in 1995, copyrighted 1997 but listed as a 2004 film in many reference sources and on the recent Blood Suckers video collection from Mill Creek Entertainment. I found Blood Suckers in the checkout aisle of a Borders bookstore a few months back and bought it cheap, thinking to myself, "Now I can hold up my end of the Wendigo series for the next few months." But after previewing some of the films I was reluctant to show any of them to Wendigo. These are micro-budgeted movies, most if not all shot on video, and the production values are amateurish. At first glance, Vampire Hunter is no exception. Gallimore is a former Disney animator as well as a martial artist. Vampire Hunter reflects his martial-arts influences more than his Magic Kingdom influences. It opens most unpromisingly with a fight in an art gallery between a hero and two vampires, a beefy dude we'll later know as Morgan Bane (Leonardo Millan) and his hair-band type minion. The hero puts up a valiant fight to save his girlfriend, but Bane seems unbeatable. Triumphant, he grouses, "Immortality sucks!" It sucks because he hasn't faced a worthy adversary in centuries, but you're supposed to assume that that's about to change.

Faces of death

Enter John O'Ryan (Gallimore), an ex-Marine and a graphic as well as a martial artist. Director Gallimore treats us to a montage of some of John's sexy artwork as well as longer, time-killing montages of O'Ryan working out. John hopes to show his art at the same accursed gallery we saw before the credits, and it's there that he and his wife encounter Morgan Bane, as well as a crazy man who tries to kill Bane with a piece of wood. O'Ryan disarms the madman, who nonetheless manages to make good his escape. No matter: Bane dispatches his scruffy sidekick to take care of the apparent vampire hunter, but Ramone (fellow animator Frank Suarez) is always prepared. The man has a cross tatooed on his palm to turn away unwanted vampires, though his stake throwing leaves a little to be desired. People in this film have a hard time killing vampires because they manage to miss the heart more often than not. But after some exertion Ramone finishes his foe. Later, Ramone has a tense confrontation with John in a parking lot after O'Ryan notices that he's been followed. Imagine the following spoken with as little emotion or inflection as possible:

John: One warning: stop following me.

Ramone: You're in danger. Your wife is in danger.

John: Oh, really? From who?

Ramone: You know who....Bane. He's got eyes for your wife, which means you're dead unless you learn to protect yourself.

John: I can take care of myself.

Ramone: I know, remember?...He's a vampire. He had eyes for my wife and she's dead now. He tried to kill me but I know how to fight them, but they're so many and I need help.

John: Stay away from me and my wife. I'm worse than any vampire.

Shouldn't the film be called Vampire Hunters? Sean Gallimore (left) and Frank Suarez (right) make two of a kind.

Don't worry, folks. John will come around. One of the aspects of this movie that resembles a character arc is our hero's gradual spiritual awakening. While Ramone is so spiritual that he can draw a cross on his hand and gain power from it, John can put a crucifix in Bane's hand with no effect. As Bane plays with the object, we learn that O'Ryan's an atheist, and infer that the traditional holy symbols won't have their traditional effect when wielded by an unbeliever.

Inevitably, of course, there are no atheists in vampire movies; with so much obviously supernatural shit floating around, it's hard to maintain one's materialist poise for long. So inevitably, as Bane makes his moves on Heather O'Ryan, John learns the ways of the vampire hunter from Ramone, who wields a mean Super Soaker full of holy water among other weapons. In the end, however, Ramone is sidelined ("It got me, and fucked up your car."), and John must penetrate Bane's lair on his own-- it's behind a black curtain in the gallery -- to save his wife from the vampire's power.

Honorable warrior John O'Ryan opens his duel with a vampirized martial-arts master by throwing garlic powder in his foe's face. Below, the fight finishes the way it started.

When martial-arts expert vampires can't stop our hero, Bane himself, after losing an eye to John in an earlier showdown, makes the unholy transformation into a puppy-faced monster in a rush to spend the majority of Gallimore's budget on gore effects....

Wendigo thinks that Gallimore simply bit off more than he could chew by trying to make a vampire-fighting action film. The auteur simply lacks the skills or means of fight choreography, camera placement or editing, not to mention a cadre of competent stuntpersons, to pull off what he wanted. Some of his actors clearly have martial-arts training, probably from Gallimore himself, but many lack any sense of timing and as a result the fight sequences often come to a dead halt while someone slowly falls to the floor. Worse, in Wendigo's opinion, Gallimore couldn't resist the temptation to try for cool effects that fall flat. The already-poor sound effects become almost unintelligble whenever he tries to give Bane a supernatural spooky voice. The props are sometimes ridiculous, too. Wendigo thinks this film has the fakest-looking wooden stakes he's ever seen; maybe that's why it's so hard to kill vampires with them. As for the sets, they have that lived-in look that simply can't be faked, and Gallimore seems very intimate with them. In other words, there's no such thing as art direction in this project, though there's lots of art on the walls.

On the other hand, Wendigo found Vampire Hunter charming in a pathetic way -- the way of a mewling kitten found out on the street in the rain. He can't say there was anything good about the film, but he feels that he saw Gallimore trying his best, and like a lot of us, when he sees that starts to root for the filmmaker a little. While Gallimore went overboard reaching for effects a bit, Wendigo felt that the story itself, the master vampire's relatively unambitous scheming, was on a level that suited the budget. If we have an "urban fantasy" genre today, then Vampire Hunter may be a Skid Row fantasy, but there's nothing necessary wrong with that. Gallimore doesn't really make any original contribution to the vampire genre, but Wendigo can't help but say, "Bravo!" to anyone who can put a feature film together on such limited resources. We might not be able to account for every penny of that $5,000, but every bit of the enthusiasm that put it all together is on screen. Wendigo can't recommend it to anyone, but he thinks it could be a fun film to watch with like-minded friends. If your mind is like ours, you might find it worth that fraction of $4.99 that it cost me.

Gallimore has posted a trailer for Vampire Hunter on YouTube under his Wassabe23 tag, but doesn't allow enabling. To take a look at it, follow this link.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Film blogger Maurizio Roca is currently doing a countdown of his top 50 films noirs at the Wonders in the Dark blog Any such project begs the questions: what is film noir? what is it about? when does it begin? when does it end? Any attempt to periodize a genre that was defined by critics after the fact is bound to start a debate. Roca has elected to confine his countdown to English-language films shot in black-and-white between 1941 and 1958, though he concedes that the "classical" period could be extended in time in either direction. Other critics would want to admit foreign-language films like the work of Jean-Pierre Melville or the Nikkatsu Noirs that have recently won recognition here. Others might object to the exclusion of noirs in color on the premise that noir is a matter of theme rather than cinematography. The arguments will go on because noir is a slippery concept encompassing a wide range of influences and going in several directions at once. Thinking about when noir can be said to have ended, it occurred to me that you could define a subcategory of late noirs that have a common apocalyptic mood, by either tapping in to Fifties fears of nuclear war and radiation or by self-consciously declaring a violent end to a style of crime movie. The most obvious examples of what I mean in each respect are Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, with its "Pandora's box" conflagration at the end, and Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow, which turns a botched bank robbery into a miniature race war with an mutually-destructive climax. Add to those Irving Lerner's terse thriller from 1959, the same year as Odds, which substitutes the fear of radiation for fear of the Bomb while telling a tough, traditional crime story.

A common element of these late noirs is the idea that the oldschool criminal is in over his head when he messes, knowingly or not, with forces far beyond his control or ken. Kiss Me Deadly is the model here, as Mike Hammer mulishly carries on his pursuit of a "great whatzit" that could destroy him, but you could also extend the idea back to Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street, in which a pickpocket gets reluctantly mixed-up in a commie spy case. City of Fear may be the most blatant statement of this theme. It opens with Vince Ryker (the conveniently named Vince Edwards) on the lam after a prison break, accompanied by a dying accomplice. Along with his freedom, Vince claims a prize. As we learn later, he'd heard from prison gossip that the infirmary kept a supply of heroin for experimental purposes. On his way out, Vince grabs a cylinder containing what he estimates as a pound of the pure stuff. If he can arrange to have the smack cut and put out on the street, he figures it'll be worth a million dollars to him.

What Vince doesn't know, since he can't open the canister, is that it isn't heroin but Cobalt-60 inside. Having removed the metal cylinder from its lead casing, he's exposing himself and everyone he encounters to dangerous levels of radiation. Allowed to run loose, he could contaminate the entire city of Los Angeles. A police investigation team equipped with Geiger counters sweeps the streets in search of the fugitive, but keeps its work under wraps in order to prevent a panic. The problem with that approach is that they can't make clear to Vince's uncooperative criminal cronies the danger they're in if they deal with him. His moll is already contaminated but won't rat him out. A suspicious shoe salesman assumes that Vince is carrying heroin and looks for ways to get the drugs while getting rid of Vince. Another sleazeball interrogated by the cops assumes that Vince has something important and decides to horn in on his deal with the shoe dealer. Vince himself is paranoid enough as a fugitive, and the radiation poisoning isn't helping matters. On top of that, he has to worry about his cronies double crossing him and taking his precious cylinder. They all behave exactly as you would expect, and because they all want a part of the score no one who knows Vince is going to tell the cops, who face a countdown before the mayor goes public with the threat. A handful of pathetic people are playing their usual petty game for higher stakes than any can imagine....

Vince isn't entirely paranoid. Lots of people are out to get him (above). Below, his moll (Patricia Blair) faces the music from a Geiger counter.

We're in a sleazier place than prime film noir, which rarely deals with drugs in my experience, and the youthful Edwards gives a juvenile-delinquent quality to his delirious protagonist. He is as doomed a protagonist as noir can offer (except maybe for Edmond O'Brien's poisoned hero in D.O.A.), and Edwards gives him just the right blend of stupid bravado and paranoia.

Vince and his precious (foreground)

Director Lerner helps him along with nicely edited sequences illustrating Vince's suspicions as he scans the streets for enemies or flees from imagined watchers. Lerner even jump cuts within shots in an almost avant-garde way to highlight Vince's fragmented, brittle perceptions. The director also makes excellent use of urban locations and hand-held cameras while also getting maximum noir value from cinematographer Lucien Ballard whenever night or shadows fall. Icing on the cake is a young Jerry Goldsmith's bombastic modernist score -- one of his first for a feature film. It sounds like exactly the sort of soundtrack one of my late noirs should have.

Lucien Ballard's cinematography gives City of Fear instant noir cred. Below, production design underlines Vince's paranoia (check out the eye on that sign).

It's possible that filmmakers were making self-conscious noirs (or would that make them "neo-noirs?") by 1959, but a late noir like City of Fear is more likely a self-conscious synthesis, an updating of noir tropes and themes for a modern world that must have made the original noir milieu of the 1940s seem long ago and far away. Just as we began to see "late westerns" around the same time that dealt with the end of the outlaw world of the Old West, late noirs seem to portray the last days of a dying breed -- in that respect, you could also throw in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, which starts with an explosion. It may be no accident that crime films soon took a nostalgic turn, with many Sixties films dealing with the legendary gangsters and robbers of the Twenties and Thirties. Whether they declared an end to a genre or not, films like City of Fear do seem forcefully to declare an end to an era, and Lerner's film in particular does so in uncompromising fashion.