Monday, August 29, 2011

LOST COMMAND (1966): The other Battle of Algiers

Of the two films released in 1966 about the "Battle of Algiers" -- the terrorist campaign aimed at driving France out of Algeria in the 1950s -- it is the colorful big-budget Hollywood production with an international cast of stars, not the monochrome semi-documentary with a cast of nobodies that has been almost completely forgotten. Yet Mark Robson's film had a head start on Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, being based on an international best-seller and prize-winning French novel, The Centurions, by Jean Larteguy. It starred Anthony Quinn, still fairly fresh from Zorba the Greek, alongside Alain Delon at the height of his stardom. So why has film history ignored Lost Command and exalted Battle of Algiers? For one thing, Pontecorvo's is the better film. It set a new standard for simulated realism and by siding with the insurgents it captured the radical zeitgeist of the late 1960s. By identifying with, if not siding with, the French occupiers, Robson's film could only appear reactionary, a Franco-American counterpart to The Green Berets, by comparison with Pontecorvo's Battle. Lost Command is innovative neither in narrative nor in visual style. But if it's indisputably inferior to Battle, does that make it an objectively bad movie?

Robson's movie probably is some kind of cinematic landmark, if only for being an early portrayal of the west's failure to subdue Vietnam. Lost Command opens during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, as paratroopers arrive to relieve an embattled unit commanded by Lt. Col. Raspeguy (Quinn). The colonel is irked to learn that his superiors have sent him a unit historian, Capt, Esclavier (Delon), but the academic proves a decent soldier -- not that that helps the unit much. They're forced to surrender (to Burt "Kato" Kwouk) and are imprisoned for some time, but under Raspeguy's leadership they largely retain cohesion and morale.

Freed at last, the men return to France, where Raspeguy courts an influential widow (Michele Morgan) who might help him secure a generalship. He can help his own cause with a good showing in Algeria, where the natives are restless. He regathers much of his old unit, including an initially reluctant Esclavier but not Lt. Mahidi (George Segal), who had returned to his native Algeria after their release. In Algeria, they gradually learn that Mahidi, who had been humiliated by racist French settlers and saw a relative killed during a protest, has taken his tactical expertise to the insurgents. While he concentrates on building a guerrila army, his sister (Claudia Cardinale) smuggles bomb-making materials to terrorists in the Casbah, eventually using an infatuated Esclavier -- who doesn't learn of her family ties until later -- as dupe to get her past checkpoints. The French forces, with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm, resort to torture to break the terror network and learn the whereabouts of Mahidi's army-in-the-making. Raspeguy leads the attack to destroy Mahidi's army and earn his generalship, but will he keep his promise to Esclavier to take their old comrade alive?...

As the poster said, they lived and loved and fought:
Anthony Quinn and Michele Morgan (above),
and Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale (below)
What we have here is the age-old conflict between the man of action and the intellectual. Raspeguy is a "beautiful beast of war," so called by the widow because he furiously rejects her first description of him as a "beautiful animal of war." Raspeguy hates being called an "animal" with the passion of one who's been called that frequently. Maybe something didn't translate well from the French, but I'm not clear on why "beast" is any better. The colonel's sensitivity has something to do with his background as a Basque peasant -- and the character's standing as an ethnic outsider among Frenchmen presumably explains Anthony Quinn's casting alongside a mostly French ensemble who speak English in their own well-accented voices -- with the conspicuous exception of Jean Servais as a general who talks in the familiar voice of Paul Frees. One weakness of this picture is the buildup it gives Raspeguy's animus to "animal," which ends up having much less payoff than we might expect.

Alain Delon has more to work with as a more sensitive personality who struggles to avoid the coarsening effect of war. Literally dropped into Quinn's unit at the opening, he's the audience-identification character and the film's political conscience. He isn't unsympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence, and puts up the most resistance not just to the use of torture against the terrorists (novelist Larteguy is credited by Wikipedia with inventing the torture-justifying "ticking bomb" scenario), but also to the French reliance on masked informers. He cracks, however, when he learns how the Cardinale character had duped him. Fresh from his principled protests, he beats her up in a rage that he appears quickly to regret, extracting more gently from her the whereabouts of Mahidi in return for Raspeguy's promise to spare the miliant's life. Esclavier will later have cause to call Raspeguy the "A-word," but while the result finally convinces him to quit the military, the moment is still fairly underwhelming.
What isn't underwhelming at all is the spectacular location work of Robson and cinematographer Robert Surtees in Spain. All the military engagements are engagingly shot, none more so than the climactic raid on Mahidi. Robson establishes the insurgents' location at the ruins of a Roman temple in the hills, and uses that temple as a reference point to make the rival forces' positions perfectly clear in every shot. However retrograde Lost Command may be from a political standpoint, it succeeds quite nicely as a colorful military action film. It may still go down as a curiosity in the Quinn and Delon filmographies, but it certainly doesn't deserve an obscurity that persists despite an official DVD release from Sony some time ago.
I might have suggested that it should endure alongside Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers to represent the other point of view, but that's not really true -- Robson's film does not oppose Pontecorvo's. Lost Command ends with the implication that Algeria's demand for independence is irrepressible, and the film never claims that the Algerians were undeserving of freedom. But it suffers in comparison to Battle because Robson never makes Mahidi the equal antagonist that the character's backstory prepares him to be. Once he turns against the France, however just his cause may be, Mahidi himself becomes little more than a menace. The movie could have used some sort of confrontation, however contrived, between Mahidi and Raspeguy or Esclavier so the insurgent could explain more eloquently or convincingly what drove a soldier who refused preferential treatment, as a presumed victim of colonialism, from his Vietnamese captors, to make war on his erstwhile comrades-in-arms. But the filmmakers may have been playing it safe, since you can stretch the credibility of George Segal as an Algerian only so far. Nevertheless, history has judged Mahidi's real-life counterparts the true protagonists of the Algerian uprising, while cinema history has judged The Battle of Algiers the definitive film version of that event. Those judgments can stand, but Lost Command should retain historical interest for presenting, not the other, but just another point of view in dramatically forceful style.

And here's the US trailer, uploaded to YouTube by SupportingActor.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A SCREAMING MAN (Un homme qui crie, 2010)

Reading an account of an African film festival a few months ago, I got the impression that Mahamat Saleh Haroun's film, a Cannes award winner, represented the great hope of the continent's largely Francophone art cinema at a moment when cheaply and crudely made Nigerian flicks (the product of "Nollywood") threaten to usurp Africa's cinematic identity. It's been acclaimed in Europe and America, but I wonder how many Africans have seen it. It's not "arty" in any alienating way, but as with a lot of what ends up as arthouse cinema in the U.S., I have to wonder how popular this film was, compared to Nollywood or Hollywood, on its home turf. It'd be reassuring to learn that it was popular, because it's good enough to deserve some popularity. But you can't help wondering whether the primary intended audience was the people of Chad, Africans overall, or the global community of movie buffs.

Haroun tells a simple, powerful story. It's about Adam, aka "Champ," a onetime champion swimmer who has long been the pool attendant -- swimming instructor, lifeguard, etc., at a hotel, formerly run by the government, that's popular with tourists. Champ's son Abdel is his assistant, but both men's jobs are in danger with the hotel's privatization, symbolized by a Chinese woman taking charge. Champ's situation is even more precarious in a state of civil war, as the ruling party pressures citizens into further contributions to the war effort. He ends up getting bad news and good news; he loses his attendant job to Abdel but gets to stay on as a uniformed gatekeeper. But even that's not such good news because it means the former gatekeeper, an old friend of Champ's, has been sacked. That aside, Champ still feels degraded and humiliated by his new work of lifting and lowering barriers for cars to arrive or depart. I found his fall from grace oddly reminiscent of F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, but while in that film a doorman is humiliated by losing his ornate uniform, Champ's new uniform is the badge of his disgrace.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood "chief" keeps pressing Champ to contribute something to the war, noting pointedly that he's sent a son to fight the rebels. The problem seems to be solved by force when Abdel is abruptly conscripted, quite against his will, as Champ watches helplessly. In Abdel's absence Champ resumes his pool job but doesn't enjoy it. He and his wife virtually adopt a pregnant woman who tells them that Abdel's the father of her unborn child. That's just one of the factors that finally compels Champ to confess that he set up Abdel's conscription, to get the chief off his back and perhaps eliminate a rival, and drives him to rescue his son from the perils of war....

The title proves ironic, since Champ never screams. You can infer a lot of silent screaming, though, as he broods over his various misfortunes, and his frequent silences are the best part of Youssouf Djaoro's performance. The less artfully articulate such a character is -- though Champ is fairly chatty in his better moods -- the more universal his emotions for global audiences. We can agree on the swirl of emotions inside him, and each of us can judge their relative weight for himself.

Director Haroun gives us a quick, evocative sketch of N'Djamena and a community under siege on many fronts: from the nebulous rebellion, from the monotonous propaganda of its own government, and from the economic forces threatening Champ's security. The movie doesn't count as the usual visual travelogue of an exotic place, but Haroun emphasizes the telling details: the checkpoints, the unlit neighborhoods Champ rides through at night on his moped. Laurent Brunet's cinematography gives the city an earthy, sunbaked palette that seems characteristically African. They don't go overboard making things look picturesque but their compositions are effective and often affecting. The ending spirals from the melodramatic to the maudlin, but it has the outcome the story seems to require, and aims for a pathos once more commonly welcome around the world. Whether the finale moves you as much as Haroun hopes, you can still admire the overall execution for its lean efficiency, for being austere without becoming abstract. It's the sort of film more people should see everywhere, whether many end up liking it or not, just to appreciate what movies can make of the ordeals of ordinary folk.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Buster Keaton in ONE WEEK (1920)

On his second try as a star and co-director, Buster Keaton made a short subject he deemed fit to stand as his debut as a lead comic after years of apprenticeship under Fatty Arbuckle. His first try, The High Sign, seemed too generic or too like Arbuckle's films to really satisfy him. One Week seemed more of a defining work, and it proved a hit. What about it defines Keaton as his own man artistically?

The story proceeds day by day through the first week together for two newlyweds, played by Keaton and Sibyl Seely. Instead of honeymooning, they build a house on property and materials provided by a wealthy uncle. The inexperienced couple, with some malicious assistance from Buster's disgruntled yet dissembling romantic rival, turn their DIY house kit into a quasi-cubist nightmare. Their housewarming party ends disastrously when a storm turns the unstable structure into a whirligig hurling guests into the yard. Finally, the young marrieds learn that they built their home on the wrong tract of land, and have to move it to the other side of the tracks, just as a train bears down on the crossing....

My shorthand memory of the film gives the spurned suitor more credit for Buster's week of woe, but his sabotage -- he misnumbers some of the boxes of the by-the-numbers house kit -- isn't as decisive as I remembered. Before he shows up to make trouble, we already get the impression that Buster's an incompetent carpenter. We see him saw off a plank he's sitting on, from the wrong side, tumble to the ground and bounce upward in one of Keaton's many spectacular falls. For all we know, the only real consequence of the rival's mischief is that the house looks funny; we can't tell if he's to blame for its peculiar rotary foundation. But more than his malice or Buster's ineptitude, the real subversive element here is pure bad luck. Keaton and co-director Eddie Cline give us signals throughout. Buster's wedding car (driven by the rival) has a sign from well-wishers reading, "Good Luck You'll Need It." After the storm, Buster recovers a good-luck horseshoe that has clearly proven useless. The week itself includes Friday the 13th. The odds are against Buster and Sibyl regardless of the rival's pranks.

The opening title card itself warns us that sweetness often turns sour. It could be argued that One Week is a metaphor for the disappointments and disillusions of the honeymoon the couple never enjoys -- with its one hopeful note being their clear resolution to stick together at the end.

In that context it's appropriate to note the extent, unique in Keaton's work, to which the leading lady is made a sex object. Sibyl Seely gets a bathtub scene in which she is clearly topless, setting up one of Keaton's fourth-wall breaking gags when his directorial hand covers the camera lens as Sibyl reaches to grab the soap she'd dropped on the floor. Seely is also unusual among Keaton's actresses for the amount of physical business Keaton gives her. She stomps her foot on an uneven floor in one scene and gets to hop out of the frame in playful pain. Later, she sprays herself in the face opening an oldschool milk bottle. She tumbles about inside the spinning house and takes a dive like the rest when it spits her out. Working in tandem, Seely and Keaton establish an attractive conjugal symmetry. When they see how their house has mutated after the storm, they fall sideways into each other, so that each is propping the other up. Later, they react to the film's famous climactic sight gag by flinging themselves in opposite directions. She's not even close to Keaton's equal in physical comedy -- who was? -- but the fact that she and he tried so hard to make the pairing work makes you regret that she didn't stick with him longer. The Kino supplemental materials relate that Seely had to bow out because working with Keaton had worn her out. That's too bad, and maybe the way she wore out convinced Keaton to give his actresses more passive roles later. Of course, most of his later films have him courting a girl, not marrying her.

So if One Week is atypical Keaton in that respect, what marks it as the arrival of a distinct cinematic talent? Contrary to what Keaton himself might have believed, it wasn't just the spectacle of the monstrous house and its spectacular demise, though that is a prophecy of the massive destruction of The General and Steamboat Bill Jr.

Comparing Keaton to his contemporaries, you can get spectacular destruction from many comics. What Keaton provides is extraordinary timing and an inspired sense of space that makes the climactic misdirection with the trains possible. The symmetry Keaton and Seely create is just a part of the overall effect. Other comics offer more mayhem, but without any sense of pace or any real momentum. Watch two reels of Larry Semon, for instance, and you usually get people pummeling each other and destroying things until an arbitrary halt. Keaton's seven-day structure gives One Week a satisfying sense of structure and completeness. He'd become known for his character's troubles with machines, but with his second two-reeler Keaton's studio has itself become a well-oiled machine. But it still required real inspiration to run so smoothly, and the next couple of Keatons will prove somewhat less inspired. Yet if One Week revealed Keaton as someone worth watching, the next shorts -- Convict 13 and The Scarecrow -- will be worth examining in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FACE TO FACE (Faccia a faccia, 1967)

Often ranked among the top spaghetti westerns, Sergio Sollima's second attempt at the genre is a character-driven and action-packed reflection on the mutuality of influence and the ironic ways in which seemingly diametrically opposed personalities change each other. Boasting superior production values and location photography and the ultimate mark of quality -- an Ennio Morricone score, Faccia a faccia pits two already-proven spaghetti stars against each other: Gian Maria Volonte (Sergio Leone's "Dollars" films) and Tomas Milian (The Bounty Killer, Sollima's Big Gundown). Volonte is Brad Fletcher, a New England college professor ordered west by his doctor for health reasons. Milian is Beauregard Bennett, a notorious and newly-captured bandit who becomes the object of Fletcher's compassion. In short order, Fletcher becomes Bennett's hostage and human shield during a daring escape. The intellectual talks Bennett out of killing him, but proves too squeamish to help the outlaw remove a bullet he took in flight. The two men find each other almost equally intriguing, though this is no bromance by any means.

Instead, Face to Face is reminiscent partly of Lawrence of Arabia, and partly of Delmer Daves's Cowboy. The Lawrence influence is obvious in Sollima's desert locations and the basic storyline of an intellectual outsider who teaches the natives -- outlaws, not Indians -- to be more effective fighters. As Fletcher grows more impressed with Bennett's courage and strength, he begins to see the outlaw life as a form of virile self-realization, and he makes himself into a criminal mastermind. The Cowboy influence will be less apparent because Daves's film is less well known. In short, Jack Lemmon's hotel clerk falls under the spell of Glenn Ford's trail boss and joins Ford on a cattle drive, during which he becomes disillusioned when Ford fails to live up to his romantic ideas of cowboy life, and eventually becomes a pitiless hardcase in embittered emulation of his role model. In both Cowboy and Lawrence, the outsider becomes hardened and even brutalized by experience to an extent that alarms the experienced natives. Just as, in Cowboy, the Ford character recognizes his own faults in Lemmon's exaggerated form, so Milian's bandit experiences a kind of intellectual awakening when exposed to the professor's learning and initial scruples, followed by a moral awakening as he sees the extent of Fletcher's corruption and ruthlessness, and its consequences for his friends.

The different stages of the doomed friendship of Beauregard Bennett (Tomas Milian, top left) and Brad Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonte, top right) in Face to Face.

Unlike in Lawrence, the outsider brings unmitigated disaster to his new friends, and unlike in Cowboy, reconciliation between the protagonists becomes impossible. Fletcher and Bennett hole up in the almost utopian multicultural community of Puerta del Fuego, which becomes a base for their banditry. When Fletcher plots a major bank robbery that turns into a bloodbath in part because Bennett finds himself unwilling to kill a child who recognizes him as an outlaw, a posse forms to destroy Puerta del Fuego and drive its people into the desert. Complicating things further is a righteous traitor in their midst: Charlie Siringo (William Berger) -- a rare spaghetti character based on a real person -- who plays a bandit but is actually a Pinkerton detective. He completes the classic spaghetti triangle, and the film climaxes with a threeway confrontation after a battle with the posse. Should a helpless Siringo be killed? If not, what does Siringo owe to his savior, and what does he owe to the law?

I'm inclined to agree with the high ranking generally given Face to Face after one viewing because, in its focus on character development and moral choices, it's more like an American western from the classic period of the 1950s, the high point of the genre overall, than the often cartoonishly amoral generality of spaghetti westerns. At the same time, Sollima and his cinematographers invest the picture with all the visual dynamism and violent energy that Italy contributed to the western genre, while his cast of spaghetti stalwarts, including Berger, all seem near the top of their game. There's a certain universality to the story that transcends the American period setting and the Italian aesthetic preoccupations, so that people who aren't keen on spaghettis in general should find this one easy to appreciate. I don't believe it's ever been released officially on DVD in the U.S., but you can see it for free -- in a single uninterrupted widescreen installment -- on YouTube. Face to Face deserves better, but for now that will do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Wendigo Meets FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)

Nostalgia for the 1980s suffered a double defeat this past weekend when remakes of Fright Night and Conan the Barbarian bombed at the box office. Of the two disasters, the failure of the Fright Night remake is probably more surprising. How could it fail, producers must have wondered, when vampires are more popular than ever and there was a newsworthy "vampire" crime in Texas to generate free publicity for the film on its opening weekend. Naysayers may have offered two words of warning from the beginning -- "Colin Farrell" -- but you can still understand why studio hacks thought they had a sure thing on their hands.

My friend Wendigo thought the remake might work, purely from a box-office standpoint, but he didn't entertain the thought for long. The more he thought about it, the more pessimistic he became. He felt the same way he did when Let Me In came out. Then, pitching a remake of an arthouse cult hit to a mass audience was doomed from the start. Now, the problem is that the Fright Night scenario is obsolete, at least for this generation. What's specifically obsolete is the concept of the lone, predatory master vampire, the representative of Evil who must be destroyed -- and must be destroyed with the power of goodness represented by the Cross. As Wendigo observes, Evil is out of fashion. It's been going out of fashion since Nixon's time, though it made something of a comeback in the Reagan era. Especially since the invasion of Iraq, "Evil" has been exposed, as far as many of us are concerned, as nothing but a label for those we want to destroy. Vampires are rarely seen as Evil now. Instead, they're the Other that must be respected for their difference and their need to find a niche in society alongside the rest of us. They're figures of identification for people who feel like Others or outsiders in modern society. To present a single vampire on screen and make him out to be an irredeemable villain who has to be destroyed is probably equivalent, for many people today, to showing them a hook-nosed Jew and advocating his extermination, or a white-lipped negro and advocating his enslavement. Not just a Fright Night remake but any movie that attempts a traditional Evil Master Vampire is probably doomed these days.

In some respects, the original Fright Night is dated in ways that might make it irreproducible. The producers seemed to think certain elements couldn't be translated intact. Wendigo suggests that the gay subtext that runs through the original dates Tom Holland's film, to the extent that it's all subtext. Jerry the vampire (Chris Sarandon) and his sidekick seem to give off a gay vibe despite Jerry's obvious appetite for women, while Jerry's invitation to Evil Ed could be read as an invitation to step out of the closet, though our knowledge that actor Stephen Geoffreys went on to do gay porn may color our perceptions.

The most obvious change that we can discern from a distance -- neither of us has seen the remake yet -- is the transformation of the Peter Vincent character from a TV horror host to some sort of Las Vegas magician. We hope they didn't do that because they thought there weren't horror hosts anymore. On my cable service I can watch Elvira, Svengoolie and Wolfman Mac on a weekly basis, so it's not as if Charlie, our hero (William Ragsdale), could not still be watching a "Fright Night" type program on weekends. What probably can't be reproduced is the idea that Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) was actually a star of horror films -- and in fact played himself, or took the character name of Peter Vincent as his own. Something very likely to be missing from the new Fright Night, despite its presumed appeal to Eighties Nostalgia, is the original's own nostalgia for an earlier era when horror hosts like Vincent flourished across the country. That quality might render Fright Night something less than an ideal subject for a nostalgic remake.

Of course, the main reason anyone would want to remake Fright Night is because it was a popular and successful film. For Wendigo, the original works as a rare blend of comedy, menace and effective plotting. In retrospect, he recognizes Holland's film as a milestone in the use of makeup and special effects for vampires. Until Fright Night, movie vampires were mostly pale imitations of the horrors you could read about in books. Following up on the pioneering work in recent werewolf films, Fright Night makes its vampires unprecedentedly grotesque and protean. They don't just turn into bats (and Jerry's bat effect is remarkably detailed and animated) but can change their facial features, their most human look being their most effective disguise. Wendigo cites Fright Night as the origin point of what's now commonly called the "grr face," the effect that coarsens a vampire's features, bares his fangs, flares his nostrils, and renders him an inhuman predator. The effect is more effective in this film because we get to see human characters undergo this transformation. But its emphasis on gruesome makeups doesn't come at the expense of Jerry's seductive powers. Chris Sarandon is as convincing as he needs to be when he's seducing Amanda Bearse or simply making friendly small talk with Charlie's mom. Fright Night isn't an advertisement for effects like From Dusk Til Dawn was, but it definitely sells the idea that a lot more can be done with the vampire than had ever been done before.

* * *


Fright Night makes the most of the standard they-won't-believe-me scenario as Charlie desperately tries to convince people that he's seen a vampire attack through his bedroom window -- a Hitchcock homage, perhaps? It works as spectacle because, for one of the last times that Wendigo recalls, a vampire has his full repertoire of folkloric powers and can have them rendered fairly convincingly on screen. Modern movie vampires, by comparison, have a generic package of superpowers; they're strong and fast and that's about it. With the normalization of the vampire a lot of its magic has gone -- and a lot of the pathos of both the vampire and his victims. Jerry turns Ed and Amy into monsters and they suffer for it. Amy wears sexier clothes and her hair grows, but her grr-face is arguably the most monstrous of all. Meanwhile, in one of the film's most disturbingly memorable sequences, Ed dies in extended agony after Peter Vincent stakes his wolf-form. He slowly morphs back into a humanoid form, screaming all the while as the famous vampire killer watches in horror. Ed's apparently unredeemed demise puts Amy's future in jeopardy, but she benefits from the then-popular rule that allows her redemption if her "sire" can be killed in time. The effect of Ed's death is ruined, however, by an ending that teases Ed's survival and sets up a sequel in which Ed doesn't actually appear. Despite Jerry's seductive veneer, these scenes belie the myth of the romantic vampire -- and they clearly have no place in a 2011 vampire film.

Vamprisim in theory (above) and practice (below)

The other element of the story Wendigo likes is its treatment of faith. Fright Night is no religious tract; faith for its purposes means strength of character and, above all, authenticity. This is illustrated in the different results of cross-wielding. At all times, it's easier to turn a neophyte like Ed or Amy with a cross than it is to turn Jerry. That raises the intriguing possibility that a vampire can build up some resistance to holy symbols with experience. But authenticity and sincerity also count, as demonstrated by Peter and Charlie's attacks on Jerry. Having just burned Ed with a cross, Peter swaggeringly confronts the master and hams it up, announcing, "Back, spawn of Satan!" -- and fails completely. But Charlie has better results a moment later. Wendigo explains that, even though Peter is now convinced of the power of the cross, he still doesn't believe in the gravity of the situation or in himself, while Charlie has been convinced of the horror all along and has never swayed from his commitment to Jerry's destruction. Later, Peter will appear to have better luck using his cross on Jerry, and he's noticeably more modest while brandishing his device. The sun is also just starting to rise, so you can credit his success to timing, or to some sort of redeeming self-realization that carries past the crisis to restart his career. He somehow gets his "Fright Night" hosting job back, apparently by finally compromising with changing times and showing creature features like Octaman rather than his moldy old gothic star vehicles. What the lesson is to that I'm not certain, but you probably won't have to worry about it in the remake.

Fright Night may well have saved the vampire movie. There was a time when John Landis couldn't get a vampire comedy made, while werewolves briefly ruled the supernatural-horror roost and slashers dominated the overall genre. Without Fright Night, there probably wouldn't have been a Lost Boys -- not that some of you would have missed it -- and the evolution of the movie vampire may have taken much longer to get going. Holland's movie is probably the best vampire comedy ever (unless you count Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein), and definitely Wendigo's favorite, for the main reason that the comedy never comes at the vampire's expense, and the vampire is never made a clown. Like all successful horror comedies, Fright Night is funny when it wants to be and horrible when it needs to be. It might be true of the remake, too, regardless of whether the public accepts it. We won't know until the DVD comes out -- unless some intrepid reader cares to share.

So just for fun, let's look at the remake trailer, as uploaded to YouTube by NitRamVids. I notice no Peter Vincent at all here; not a good sign....

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Before there was a one-armed swordsman or one-armed boxer in Hong Kong, before there was a one-armed murderer on The Fugitive TV series, before Spencer Tracy was a one-armed karate expert in Bad Day at Black Rock, there was Tange Sazen. Created by the author Fubo Hayashi in 1927, the one-armed, one-eyed ronin has been a fixture of Japanese pop culture ever since. Within a year of his invention, he was in the movies, and films have been made of his mythical exploits ever since, the latest in 2004 according to Wikipedia. So popular was the motif of Tange Sazen that one studio contrived to turn the character into a woman for a presumably bizarre but also presumably progressive series of films. Hideo Gosha's rendering of the Sazen story is, one must assume, more conventional, and has the advantage of being made when Gosha was at the peak of his powers as a director of suspenseful action films. Apparently an adaption of an established Sazen story, The Secret of the Urn also feels like a dry run for Gosha's masterpiece Goyokin, which would appear three years later.

Gosha's film opens with Tange Sazen's origin. Our antihero starts out as an ordinary Tokugawa-era samurai, Samanosuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura) who is assigned to assassinate a conspirator. He's tapped because he once loved the target's wife, so that his superiors can disclaim responsibility and blame Samanosuke for acting out of jealousy. He confronts his target in the countryside, informs him of the charge, and gives him a chance to die honorably in combat. The conspirator, deciding that his cause is hopeless, opts for seppuku instead, asking Samanosuke to be his second and deliver the deathblow. His promise proves treacherous; when Samanosuke assumes the position, the conspirator turns on him and slashes his face, blinding him in one eye and in effect making him the Jonah Hex of Japan. Samanosuke still finishes his man, but now has to fight off government men who tag him as an insane murderer. He escapes, but leaves his sword arm behind in the confusion.

The plot proper now begins. We're introduced to the famous Yagyu clan, which has been commissioned by the shogunate to host an important festival. The purpose of this is simply to drain the Yagyu of their resources; if they can't come up with the funds, their fiefdom will be forfeit. Times are tough, as they usually are in a Gosha film, so what is to be done? A 120-year old retainer has the answer: the Yagyu possess a treasure known as the Earless Monkey Urn. Of great historical significance in its own right, the urn also has the key to a million-ryo treasure. The only idea I can offer of how much that is is to note that one hundred ryo is the amount usually offered some sucker who happens to possess the urn but doesn't know its true value. Such a person is presumably very much impressed with the hundred ryo, so escalate accordingly. But how do other people get their hands on the urn?

There are spies and thieves everywhere, it turns out, so that not only the Yagyus' rivals but a pair of common thieves -- a stuttering burglar and a pistol-packing geisha -- know about the urn and its significance, even if none of them necessarily know how to interpret its inscriptions. The amazingly resilient urn -- what is it, made of iron? -- literally becomes a football scrimmaged over by rival factions as the two thieves and an ambitious little urchin watch and wait for their chance. The struggle eventually brings everyone to the doorstep, figuratively speaking, of the ronin Tange Sazen, who has trained himself as an invincible swordsman with his remaining arm. He soon takes charge of the urn, knowing only that people are fighting over it and that he can clearly make mischief with it. The thieves know what it's worth, but Sazen doesn't necessarily care -- and at the same time the more-or-less innocent Yagyu have a perfectly legitimate claim to the urn, and their future depends on it. Will the mockingly bitter Sazen regain his sense of honor? Will the reappearance of his lost love bring him to his senses, or has something developed between him and the geisha -- and will that bring him to his senses -- or her to hers?

My feeling that Secret of the Urn was a practice run for Goyokin is based on several factors, including the presence of Nakamura, the convergence of politics and a money grab, the involvement of a brother-and-sister team of rogues, and the fact that Urn isn't quite as good as the later film. Goyokin may simply have been Gosha's way of improving on many of the established story elements in the Tange Sazen saga. The later film has both a stronger moral core, embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai, and a more relentless dramatic momentum. Urn is episodic and protracted by comparison, even though it's a good half-hour shorter than Goyokin. It's inferior on just about every level, but not being a masterpiece is no crime, especially when Urn is as lively and well-acted overall as it is. It shares with Goyokin a realist but not revisionist awareness of the cynical and mercenary forces at work in samurai times, along with a faith that true heroism was both possible and capable of victory. That makes Gosha's samurai films classic adventures of the sort fans of classic Hollywood could recognize and empathize with.

Personally, one bonus element in Urn is the presence of ninjas. Especially gratifying is Gosha's use of them the way they should be used: as cannon fodder -- or, to be more accurate, either sword fodder or fodder for the geisha's pistol. For are not ninjas the most overrated creatures in all creation? I might take them seriously if they were "modern ninjas" like the ones Tetsuro Tamba (a welcome presence in Urn, as usual) was training in You Only Live Twice, but too often in movies ninja are no more than allegedly lethal mimes with Boba Fett powers. They are assumed to be badass because -- to somebody -- they look cool. The armies of ninjas that infested the 1980s were good only for laughs. Historical ninjas are admittedly more plausible as menaces, but only if used properly as skulking assassins. In Urn, when they attempt to attack frontally or en masse, they are properly slaughtered with sword and gun. Tange Sazen has my respect on the strength of this one outing as a ninja-killer. Doing it all one-handed is nearly as impressive as the Chinese martial artists in that Japanese film whose title I can never remember who could take out ninjas with his bare hands. So ha-ha to Eric Van Lustbader, Frank Miller and other ninja-lovers; I do not recommend Secret of the Urn to them.

Nor would I recommend it objectively to anyone unfamiliar with Hideo Gosha's work until you've seen Goyokin first. But since Urn is currently available as a Netflix streaming video, while they have to send you Goyokin in the mail, you may as well watch Secret, since it is a well-made, entertaining action movie from the classic period of samurai cinema. Think of it as an appetizer, with Goyokin as the main course; you'll probably like it, and I can assure you there's better to come.

AnimEigo released the film on DVD this year, provided the stream to Netflix, and uploaded this English-subtitled trailer to YouTube.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: APPLAUSE (1929)

When talking pictures finally became a sure thing, it seemed like a good idea for the studios to bring successful theatrical directors to Hollywood, presumably because they knew how to direct dialogue scenes. But would they know how to direct movies? Could they think outside the proscenium? Talkies had already been fettered by the requirements of early sound recording; an unimaginative stage veteran might only make things worse. Fortunately, Rouben Mamoulian set the right example for the rest with Applause, recognized ever since as a milestone of creative framing and staging for sound film. Mamoulian approached the challenge of cinema in exactly the right way, thinking of everyone he could now do that was impossible on the stage. If he was brought to Hollywood to serve the needs of talkies, he gave talkies an evolutionary kick in the pants to serve his own creative needs. Compare his film to the other musicals of 1929 that endure in memory today -- The Broadway Melody and The Coconuts -- and Applause looks much more modern, at least in its range of camera angles and fluidity of camera movement. Some of his tricks, like a slow-motion wipe that produces a temporary split-screen effect, proved narrative dead-ends. Otherwise, Mamoulian grabs the viewer in a way most of his peers couldn't manage yet -- though given what he shows us, viewers may have wanted to pull themselves loose and run away.

I'd better make clear that Applause is a fine film, and often as visually stunning as its reputation proclaims, but it's also an appalling picture, and probably more so now that time has made it even more of an alien artifact. I should also make clear that Mamoulian's film is not a musical in the way Broadway Melody, Coconuts or even The Great Gabbo are. Applause is a melodrama set in the backstage milieu of lower-rung burlesque. Its musical performances are not "numbers" designed to put over a song or captivate the audience. It's closer to Josef Von Sternburg's The Blue Angel in its overall feel, though even that is far more glamorized than Applause. This adaptation of a novel by Beth Brown is primarily a tearjerker, but of a kind they don't really make anymore. A tearjerker today is a sentimental story about beautiful or wonderful people who die prematurely. Applause is all about abjection and wretchedness. Like many if not most American silent films it is a play for pathos -- the magic word we identify with Charlie Chaplin's work. If the term means anything to people today, it probably means something that makes you laugh and cry, or laugh then cry. Pathos means crying at the woes of a clown, but let's broaden the category a bit as we remember that another major pathos player of the period was Lon Chaney Sr. -- no clown by any standard. He got people to cry at the woes of criminals and monsters, while Chaplin won the same sympathy for a tramp. The subject of pathos, if we can discuss pathos as a genre in its own right, is grotesquerie or wretchedness. For 1920s audiences, it was a treat, I guess, to empathize with or just plain pity grotesque, wretched people as they struggled for a better life, or for love, and failed. The height of pathos came when the grotesque protagonist actually renounced happiness when it seemed within reach. For Chaplin, that meant choosing the road once more. Outside comedy, renunciation meant sacrifice, and usually self-sacrifice. A reformed Chaney might give his life to save someone else's life, for instance, or to spare someone he meant to torment, either way giving up whatever dream of happiness or revenge on humanity he may have treasured. It gave early movie audiences a now-nearly incomprehensible thrill to witness these scenes of renunciation and sacrifice -- the more abject and absolute, presumably, the better. If you accept these premises, you might comprehend why on earth anyone would watch such a spectacle of wretchedness as Applause.

Helen Morgan, doomed herself to be the subject of a tearjerking biopic, stars as Kitty Darling, an ambitious performer who goes into labor in the middle of a routine after learning that the father of her unborn child will die at Sing Sing that night. Determined to give her daughter a proper upbringing, Kitty saves money to pay the girl's way through a convent school. But as the years pass Kitty finds herself under pressure from her latest paramour, Hitch, to raise money for a last-chance touring show. To do so, she has to pull her teenaged daughter out of her idyllic school and bring her home.

April Darling (Joan Peers) only has dim infant memories of her glamorous mom. Her first exposure to Kitty's present state is a rude awakening. It was pretty bad for us the first time around. Mamoulian builds up anticipation by showing us an empty street, handbills blowing in the wind, with a faint drumbeat the only sound. Finally we see a parade announcing the arrival of Kitty's show, which we see in scenes that look like they were filmed in a real theater. If Kitty is the highlight of this bill -- this is the initial sequence, when she's at the presumed height of her presumed powers -- it's only because most of her castmates are aggressively repulsive. I understand perfectly well that standards of beauty differed a century ago, but my understanding is also that 1929 audiences found the chorus lines of Applause nearly as repulsive as I did. It's hard to believe that any of them passed for beautiful 100 years ago, and I don't think that Mamoulian is trying to convince us otherwise. One reason Applause isn't a musical is that Mamoulian adamantly resists any attempt to glamorize his show world. This is supposed to be bad burlesque, in past and present -- and if the women are somewhat shapelier in the modern scenes, Mamoulian makes up for that with gruesome close-ups of the dancers' leering, stupid faces, each one mirrored by a stupid, leering face in the audience. When he cuts to a proto-Berkeleyan view from the ceiling, the effect is more clinical than aesthetic. Just about everything in Applause is ugly -- Morgan is deglamorized in a way that belied Paramount's advertising, which featured the chic, un-frightwigged singer Broadway knew, while the movie presents Morgan as a prophecy of Shelley Winters. Joan Peers is passable by comparison, but that only makes April the object of Hitch's betraying lust.

These shots are as glamorous as Applause gets.

Hitch pressures Kitty to put April to work in the show, while pressuring April to put out. Meanwhile, April meets a simple goodhearted sailor (Henry Wadsworth), who rescues her from a street mauling. She and Tony enjoy a whirlwind courtship that culminates in his proposal of marriage atop a skyscraper as an aeroplane flies picturesquely above. April initially accepts, but once persuaded by Hitch that she's the only hope of saving the show and salvaging her mother's future, she spurns the sailor. Meanwhile, Kitty has become convinced that she's hopelessly washed up, and is more convinced than ever that April shouldn't share this life with her. What could generate more pathos than suicide? How about pointless suicide? Mamoulian crosscuts between April's breakup with Tony and Kitty's ingestion of a bottle of pills and her restless waiting for death. It comes oh so slowly, until it's nearly showtime and Kitty staggers deliriously into her dressing room, only to be berated by Hitch and the management as she swoons. April arrives fresh from her renunciation, sees her mom passed out (drunk, April assumes), and waxes indignant at the men cursing Kitty. If the star can't do her big number, April will, having chosen this career over love, her audience-wowing brazenness fueled by her loathing for everyone and everything involved with show business. Miraculously, Tony appears at the theater; he'd suspected already that April's blowoff wasn't sincere. At the sight of him her resolve is forgotten. She begs to be taken away from this wretched life and finally explains that she'd only spurned him for her mother's sake. Tony is all forgiveness. In fact, he invites April to bring her mother to live with them on Tony's Wisconsin farm. Of course Kitty would be welcome to enjoy life with them! Of course!...

'Kid, you're going out there a nobody, but you've got to come back a floozy!'

While unfamiliarity with Broadway names doomed Applause at the national box office, the scenario I just described wasn't really inconsistent with audience tastes in the Twenties, given the prevalence of pathos in so many surviving silents. Our ancestors had more nuanced sensibilities in some respects than we enjoy today, or so I assume from their apparently not insisting on happy endings in every film and their welcoming of utterly unhappy endings on many occasions. Of course, some may have treated Applause as a grimly cynical joke -- for all I know, Beth Brown herself may have meant it that way -- but that was most likely a minority viewpoint. Or look at it this way: more people in those more deprived times (and this opened before the Depression really hit) may well have seen life as a grimly cynical joke, but that may have made the struggles of the wretched only more pitiable for them. All I know is that there isn't the same market for pathos today, and there hasn't been for a long time. For that reason, Applause is simultaneously as archaic in its sensibility as it is advanced (by historical standards) directorially. And without a historic awareness of its aesthetic significance, the film will probably look 100% archaic. But what's wrong with archaic? If the difference of the past, rather than its resemblance to the present, is what fascinates you, Applause is likely to fascinate you, too -- in its uniquely appalling way.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gualtiero Jacopetti (1919-2011)

This blog is named for two Italian movies. The "70" comes from the epic portmanteau film Boccaccio 70. The "Mondo" comes from Mondo Cane ("Dog's World"), a global sensation of the 1960s that set the tone for "shockumentaries" without actually inventing the genre. Mondo movies are distinguished, at their best, by an ambitious global sweep framed by expansive cinematography, a mordant or cynically chiding narrative sensibility that deplores the miseries and mocks the follies on display while maximizing their sensation value, and the opulent music, romantic and opulent at once, of Riz Ortolani. Created in collaboration with many hands, Franco Prosperi most importantly, Mondo Cane expressed above all the vision of Gualtiero Jacopetti, who died yesterday at the approximate age of 92. Jacopetti and Prosperi pushed beyond the anecdotal Mondo format to create two staggering and fearsome films: Africa Addio, a vividly violent chronicle of the aftermath of colonialism, and Goodbye Uncle Tom, an incendiary inquiry into the roots of racial unrest in America. Condemned in their time as exploitative, complicit, counterfeit, irresponsible and outright racist, these features and the work of Jacopetti overall arguably exerted an important influence on more respectable filmmakers. They pointed the way toward full-scale feature filmmaking that at once transcended the conventions of literary narrative and the bare reportage of conventional documentary film. Think of them as essay films, for good or ill, expressing an auteur's interpretation of the world around him. In more sensitive hands, the same approach results in films like Fellini Roma from a fellow Italian, F for Fake from Orson Welles, and so on. The Mondo films are milestones of the vulgar avant-garde, spectacular examples for the future and as liberating in their potential as the experiments of Jean-Luc Godard. If cinema is something other than literature and theater, Jacopetti should loom as a giant -- or, if you prefer, a monster -- in the medium's historical landscape, for broadening our horizon of cinema's potential.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Columbia Classics Cavalcade, PART II

The Albany Public Library may perform no greater service to movie buffs than to acquire rare movies from the Columbia Classics collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's burn-on-demand service. These obscure titles can be had for close to $20 a pop online -- or you can watch at least some of them for free, if your library is as enterprising as mine. The least I can do, as I've done once before, is to give readers an idea of what they're in for with some of these titles before they put their money down. As before, we proceed in chronological order, this time over a 20 year span from the early 1950s into the mid 1970s that includes a western, a noirish thriller, a Sixties gothic, a dark docudrama and a superficially blaxploitational crime drama. Shall we begin?

Before William Castle discovered his calling as a marketer of horror gimmicks, he toiled for Columbia as a director of B westerns. His CONQUEST OF COCHISE (1953) takes him a little ways into the territory of the adult western, following the stream that started with Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow (1950) toward the humanization of Native Americans. Jeff Chandler, otherwise one of the less explicable stars of the 1950s, stole Broken Arrow from James Stewart by playing the Apache chief Cochise as a noble, articulate warrior-statesman. For a time, Cochise became the archetypal good Indian, so it was natural to make him the hero of his own film. For the occasion, Castle reverses the Broken Arrow formula, so that instead of a doomed romance between a white man and an Apache maiden, Conquest features a doomed romance between a white woman and Cochise himself (John Hodiak). Robert Stack is on hand as a ladies' man of a cavalry officer, but he quickly recedes into the background as we follow Cochise on his wavering course between joining an alliance against the whites and opting against war and suffering torture for his trouble. It closes on a note of pathos as Cochise invokes an Apache law that forbids him to marry his white love, only to be reminded after she leaves of what he knows all too well -- there is no such law. It almost is moving despite a board-stiff performance by Hodiak, who makes Jeff Chandler look like Brando. Castle's direction, as always, is functional at best, but the story is active and the movie is colorful. Whether such a true B western, as opposed to Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott's budgetary Bs, can possibly be worth what Columbia Classics charges, is up to the really hardcore western fans to decide.

Just as the hard-boiled crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s evolved into something else with the rise of the paperback originals of the 1950s, so film noir should be seen to have become something else, for the most part, by the time Gerd Oswald's SCREAMING MIMI appeared in 1958. This adaptation of a Frederic Brown thriller has the noir look thanks to Burnett Guffey's ace cinematography, but the sensibility is coarser and sleazier, befitting the film's burlesque milieu. Anita Ekberg is a young woman traumatized by an attempt on her life who starts over as an exotic dancer under the Svengalian influence of her psychologist. She dances at El Madhouse, where Gypsy Rose Lee presides as an implicitly lesbian mistress of ceremonies and the Red Norvo trio accompanies the dancers. There's a host of suspects available when a fresh attempt on Ekberg's life matches the m.o. of another dancer's killer, setting up the epic "Ripper vs. Stripper" confrontation announced in the trailer. The mystery unfolds awkwardly, however, as the unseen earlier murder looms larger as a decisive event, and even at a mere 79 minutes things develop too slowly to prevent you from anticipating at least some of the plot twists that arrive in due course. Ekberg herself is too passive to be compelling, while her sex appeal is literally a thing of the past. Her exotic dancing is more interesting in theory (especially the slave motif) than in practice, and the character doesn't really get more interesting the more we learn about her. Still, Oswald and Guffey sustain a visual, visceral mood of slightly gilded grunge that makes Mimi enjoyable to look at at least once.

Ten years later, Bernard Girard's THE MAD ROOM seems less sleazy, more retrograde than Screaming Mimi. In part that's because it's a remake of a 1940 play and a 1941 film called Ladies in Retirement. In this version, Stella Stevens's secretary to wealthy widow Shelley Winters brings her two disturbed younger siblings to live in the Winters household. The kids had been committed after being found by the butchered bodies of their parents in a room full of flowers finger-painted on walls in blood. It's a classic gothic set-up, and before you know it, someone dies violently and a dog runs off with a severed hand. Since no one was ever sure which of the two kids did the actual killing way back when, there's a whodunit element about the present murder, but the answer is inevitably more complicated than most characters realize. Some bits are hopelessly backward, like a black servant who remains oblivious to murder because she plays loud music in her room, while some progressively sexual or violent moments were reportedly left on the cutting-room floor by studio editors. I know that I couldn't help wondering while I watched it what a good Italian genre director could have done with this material; my only definite answer is "better." This picture never really goes over the top, except toward the end when Stevens goes after that dog with a sword. That's not much of a highlight if you think about it.

A classic Hitchcockian scenario that played out in real life, and one that Hitchcock himself wanted to make into a movie, the crimes of John Christie and his framing of Timothy Evans for the murder of Evans's wife are recounted in Richard Fleischer's 10 RILLINGTON PLACE (1971), filmed three doors from the murder scene on a desolate stretch of street. Christie (Richard Attenborough) was a serial killer who lured women into his miserable flat (when the wife was out), gassed them, raped them and killed them. Fleischer shows us one of Christie's early crimes so that there'll be no mystery about what he's up to when the Evanses (John Hurt and Judy Geeson) move in. The suspense of the story -- or the horror of it -- builds as Tim's stupidity slowly dooms him to hang for a crime he didn't commit. Evans is an illiterate boor and a self-pitying serial fabricator, a weakling on every level who still doesn't deserve what's coming. But his own untrustworthiness, as well as his pathetic trust in the self-proclaimed abortionist Christie, are the undoing not only of himself but his whole family. Hurt has specialized in pathetic characters throughout his career, but he arguably touches bottom here, while Attenborough is unprecedentedly loathsome as the soft-spoken real-life monster. Fleischer had dealt with this sort of evil previously in The Boston Strangler, but in 10 Rillington Place he puts aside the split-screen psycho-gimmickry of Strangler yet taps into a far more convincing horror. This film achieves a kind of grandeur in its unrelieved wretchedness, its cramped atmosphere of squalor that could itself breed evil and is nourished anew by fresh bodies. It's a triumph of evil that's unmitigated by Christie's inevitable comeuppance, and an underrated classic of moral horror.

The box copy builds up Robert Hartford-Davies's THE TAKE (1974) as a nihilistic spree of police corruption, but the PG rating should have warned me that the actual film would be pretty tepid stuff. Perhaps I should have been warned by Billy Dee Williams's star casting. In a part that begs for a Jim Brown or Fred Williamson despite not being written specifically for a black actor -- a San Francisco cop brought to a New Mexico town to clean up corruption who proves corrupt himself -- Williams brings nothing. He has neither style nor swagger, nor does he project any authority or charisma. His character apparently turned bad after being framed by The Syndicate years ago, and the assumed irony of the story is that while he may seem the sucker for being on the take, he's actually the predator, shaking down the crooks for all he can before taking them down. The fact that his estranged girlfriend lives in his new town, and the fact that he's investing his take money in some big real estate venture, don't really amount to anything. Actually, nothing really amounts to anything in this surprisingly inert production. It ends in the middle of things -- it just stops, actually, and the point seems to be that Williams is stuck in a miserable cycle that only breeds more corruption. I say "seems" because there may not be a point to any of it. The director seems unaware of any point; he leaves the actors utterly at sea to sink or swim, with none other than Frankie Avalon making the strongest impression as a small-time crook turned into an informant. The likes of Eddie Albert, Vic Morrow and Albert Salmi seem unsure of what's wanted from them, while Williams seems simply indifferent. Titles like these should make "Columbia Classics" liable to false-advertising charges.

But there's a definite winner in this pack in 10 Rillington Place, while Screaming Mimi earns at least a marginal recommendation. I suppose that's not a bad batting average for a random sample. I remain eager to see more Columbia Classics titles as the library acquires them just because of their rarity or obscurity. You never know what you might find -- until I tell you, that is. But for now, this is your guide to the cluttered landscape of the wild world of cinema signing out.