Thursday, May 31, 2012


Warner Bros. released Budd Boetticher's gangster biopic about a month before the last of Boetticher's westerns with Randolph Scott, Comanche Station, hit theaters. The two films don't immediately look like the work of the same director. The western, more than ever in retrospect, looks like Boetticher's characteristic work, but Legs Diamond gives an impression that the Scott westerns were as exceptional for the director as they were for Scott himself. Diamond has a generic identity that might transcend any personal creative signature. It was one of a cycle of of biopics and fact-based films set in the Prohibition era encouraged by the success of the Untouchables TV series but arguably inspired by pictures predating the TV show like Love Me or Leave Me or Party Girl. With Production Code rules still enforced fairly strictly, these pictures take a strong "Crime Does Not Pay" stance. Their protagonists aren't the charismatic antiheroes of the Pre-Code gangster cycle. They're grotesques, made interesting for late '50s-early '60s audiences by hints of psychological dysfunction. Boetticher's Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) seems pathological, but is more sociopath than psychopath. The damning event of his career is when he condemns his tubercular brother (Warren Oates) to certain death by stopping payments for his medical treatment, not out of hatred or rivalry but solely because he doesn't want his enemies to be able to get at him by threatening those close to him. Diamond's solution is to be close to no one, his self-imposed emotional isolation reinforcing a sense of invincibility acquired after the so-called "Clay Pigeon" survived numerous shootings. Ultimately, like a ghost dancer, he comes to believe that he can't be killed, even as he lies wounded and looks up the barrel of a gun.

Boetticher had dealt with a madman in his contemporary thriller The Killer is Loose, but the type isn't his specialty. His westerns are memorable for their villains who seem little different from Scott's hard-bitten heroes, apart from having made wrong choices. Diamond, conceived by writer Joseph Landon to embody some kind of psychological complexity, seems shallow by comparison to Lee Marvin in 7 Men From Now, Richard Boone in The Tall T or Claude Akins in Comanche Station, and Boetticher never really empathizes with the character. Nor can he do much with so many scenes of Diamond arguing with people and reiterating his personality flaws. The Scott westerns proved Boetticher a master of what might be called chamber action, working best with small casts and limited time frames. A biopic nearly half an hour longer than any of the Scott films diffuses his focus, leaving his style to be identified in isolated but nicely staged set pieces of suspense and violence. Danton is something of a stiff as Diamond but gives writer and director the emotional brutality they wanted. Strangely enough, his most intense moment in my eyes came not when he was shooting anyone but when in mid-argument with his girl he abruptly shoves her across a room. Something Cagneyesque stirred in that shot, some genuine fury, but Rise and Fall, as its title warns you, is too formulaic to run on that fury. It's not exactly terrible and you might even find it a compelling character study as the filmmakers hoped, but as Boetticher's contribution to the gangster genre from the period of his mastery it can't help being a major disappointment.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Freely adapted by the legendary team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from one of Herbert Asbury's chronicles of urban lowlife -- the same author was the source for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York -- Howard Hawks's film for Samuel Goldwyn focuses on a fortune-hunting female (Miriam Hopkins) who arrives in 19th century San Francisco to learn that her betrothed to be has been killed by the local vice lord (Edward G. Robinson). With no other prospects in sight she attaches herself to Robinson and becomes a corrupt croupier at his casino. Robinson controls the town; the sheriff and judge are his pawns and advocates of law and order, led by Harry Carey, seem powerless to thwart him. They turn to a newly-arrived newspaperman but Robinson and apprentice thug Brian Donlevy intimidate the ink-stained wretch into effective silence, sparing his life only because Hopkins, who'd arrived with him, begs that he be spared, and Robinson feels he should do nice things for her every so often. But Robinson isn't getting everything out of the relationship with Hopkins that he'd hoped for, and he resents it passionately. If Hopkins is the center of the picture you can see the outline of an old Lon Chaney Sr. vehicle just below the surface. Robinson is playing a version of his standard gangster here, but the extra element he contributes is his character's apparently genuine longing for love. You feel it in his angry exchanges with Hopkins, when he demands the love she'd promised. Robinson brings a passion to these scenes above and beyond the usual cruel lust of the melodrama villain. But it's up to him to invest the scenes with emotion, since Howard Hawks isn't making a Chaneyesque movie. I don't mean that Hawks neglects the actor or leaves him to his own devices; he certainly deserves some of the credit for the intensity Robinson brings to his performance. But Hawks isn't really interested in the pathos an actual Chaney vehicle was designed to generate. Neither he nor Robinson plays for pity, nor do they dare suggest that the character's longings redeem him. Yet the film closes on a note of renunciation worthy of Chaney.

Hopkins finds true love with a handsome young prospector with a poetic temperament (Joel McCrea) whom Robinson has vowed to destroy. Again, Hopkins begs Robinson to spare a man, this time promising never to see McCrea again and to give Robinson the love he craves if only he'll let McCrea live. Robinson agrees and allows Hopkins to see McCrea off on a boat. Watching her make her farewell, Robinson recognizes true love and apparently realizes that he can't have it, at least from Hopkins. That leaves few other options for him, since Carey has finally incited the citizenry into vigilante action and his men are at work destroying Robinson's operations and lynching his men. Perhaps Robinson realizes that his time is running out and he simply has nothing left to offer Hopkins. Maybe he realizes that he can't have love because he can't love. So he does the next best thing, and probably the best thing he's capable of. He orders Hopkins to stay on the boat with McCrea and disembarks himself to face Carey's lynchers alone. To an extent the way he meets his end ennobles him, since he shows no fear, urging Carey to get on with whatever he intends. The matter-of-fact way in which the director films this, the avoidance of pathos, may be the most Hawksian thing about the picture. Otherwise it's a slick production that evokes the mythic grunge and glamor of Gold Rush San Francisco, primarily powered by Robinson despite Hopkins's top billing. If it's remembered now, it's most likely as a Robinson movie than as a Hopkins or Hawks show. Hopkins is fine in her role, as is McCrea and Walter Brennan in one of his first high-profile character turns. But Robinson gives the film what character it has as the embodiment of the city's storybook decadence, and he's what makes it worth watching today.


In the year that gave us Red Riding Hood and Immortals, Paul W.S. Anderson's travesty on themes by Alexandre Dumas doesn't come close to being the worst film. In any other year, who can say? Before we go further, let's make clear that I have no problem with the "steampunk" gimmickry that adds a climax of dueling airships over Paris to the story of the Queen's necklace. The imagery in the advertisements hinted at a certain lunatic grandeur, and the finished product, unlike its competition in the worst-film category, is often pictorially ravishing. In fact, I was ready to be won over when Anderson opened the film with toy soldiers on a map of Europe. That was so charmingly unexpected that I briefly believed that the director did have the insane spark that might have made this thing work. But Anderson is anything but a madman, alas, and his writers are worse still. Their script is a thing of jaw-dropping banality. Never mind the anachronistic superweapons; you simply can't believe the words the characters are saying. If the intro raised my hopes, those hopes were dashed the moment Milla Jovovich replies to a snarky compliment with, "I bet you say that to all the girls." The words she said and the way she said them were fatal. I haven't seen any Resident Evil movies, but I can't believe that they've caused her to regress so badly as an actress, or Anderson to regress so badly as a director of actors. He can't extract a decent performance out of anyone here, even the phoning-it-in Christoph Waltz, and it's as if Anderson has forgotten (if he ever knew) how to film dialogue for emphasis or even clarity. It's debatable whether Anderson has really ever been a good director, but for all their flaws films like Event Horizon and Soldier seemed to respect actors more than this film does.

The actors hold our interest only so we can keep track of whose career is closest to total ruin. For Orlando Bloom, The Hobbit can't come soon enough, and it probably won't be enough to restore him to where he was about eight years ago. His Buckingham gets arguably the most cliches, having to utter such gems as "The game's afoot," and "Sending a boy to do a man's work." Listening to him strut and simper, you begin to wonder whether the movie was intended all along as a party game where you have to drink every time you hear an old wheeze like that. But if Bloom is bad, Logan Lerman as D'Artagnan is hopeless, smug rather than earnest or arrogant and a pretty face more than anything else. His exchanges with Gabriella Wilde's Constance are treated as if the actors were glamorous wits, but the actors seem not to have a brain between them. They embody the film's unforgivable vapidity. The writers are the sort who think they're clever for quoting from A Fistful of Dollars at one end of the picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the other, but what does it all prove apart from their film-geekery? Beyond such showboating, their worst sin is lying to the audience or, more specifically, having their characters lie to the audience --not to another character, but to the people watching the movie. I kid you not. They show us the musketeers plotting their strategy for attacking the Tower of London, with Athos explaining that the bad guys will expect a certain approach, so they'll try another, with the musketeers as decoys for D'Artagnan. Then, after Buckingham captures D'Artagnan, our hero tells his British enemy, "They're not the decoys; I am!" The earlier scene exists only to deceive us, not the bad guys, and that's kind of insulting -- not in the way the whole film's an insult to your intelligence, but almost a personal insult. Yet despite it all, the visuals nearly redeem the movie at times, even if they raise more questions than they answer about physics, logic, etc. If the production designers had been at the service of a more inspired or just more reckless director or writer, this same story might have attained the level of guilty pleasure at least -- something like a 17th century Hudson Hawk. As it is, Anderson's Musketeers might be compared to Hudson Hawk (there is a convergence on the point of Leonardo da Vinci) as an expensive and misconceived failure, but such comparisons are unfair to Hudson Hawk. If you want to make comparisons, think of 2011 and remember that there were worse films than The Three Musketeers. Chilling, isn't it?

Monday, May 28, 2012


A fitting film for Memorial Day in more than one sense, Samuel Fuller's fact-based account of a grueling American incursion into Japanese-occupied Burma self-consciously honors the memories of the men who fought but was also, without actually saying so, a memorial to its star, Jeff Chandler, who died of complications from a back injury suffered on the Philippine location a year before the movie's release. He didn't hurt his back while the cameras rolled, but apparently endured an ordeal of pain for the remainder of the shoot in some ways comparable to that portrayed in the picture. Chandler finally submitted to surgery back home, but died from it. He made his name in movies, after some success in radio, playing the milestone heroic-Indian role of Cochise in Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow (1950). I always found Chandler unconvincing in period or ethnic parts -- he's one of Hollywood's most unconvincing Arabs in Flame of Araby, for instance -- but that limitation doesn't pose a problem when he plays a hard-boiled general with a heart condition who drives himself the same way he drives his men, despite the advice of the standard-issue compassionate medic (Andrew Duggan). When Merrill finally suffers a (non-fatal) heart attack just before the finish, it's as if Fuller were projecting Chandler's demise. It must have been an awful yet moving sight for his fans when the film first came out fifty years ago next month, but the film holds up now without the morbid fascination it must have exerted in the summer of '62.

Fuller's film is more an ensemble piece than a Chandler star vehicle. Warner Bros. clearly considered it a showcase for its young contract talent from television: Ty Hardin (Bronco), Peter Brown (Lawman) and Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot), while Fuller treated it as an audition for The Big Red One, which he hoped to make with Warners' money immediately afterward. Despite the quirks given each of the lead soldiers, Merrill's Marauders is a less character-driven film than the one Fuller finally made in 1980. The characters don't really rise above types and tics, and one soldier's tragicomic attachment to the company mule is just corny, but you could argue that this sort of war movie needn't be and maybe shouldn't be character-driven. Fuller's eye for dramatically framed action drives the film, and he gets maximum value for his dollar in the Philippines. The battle scenes are nicely staged, though some of them were apparently shot for other pictures and cut in by cost-conscious Warners. The most pictorially intriguing is a skirmish at an oil refinery constructed almost like a labyrinth, punctuated by a post-fight walk by a soldier across the tops of odd structures almost shaped like coffins on top, as bodies lay below. But I was most impressed by a more quiet scene. The exhausted troops are resting in a liberated village. The villagers offer some of their meager food to the hungry Americans. An old woman brings a small bowl to a bearded, barely conscious Claude Akins, who seems to be Fuller's substitute for his usual dogface alter ego Gene Evans. She and her child pantomime that the stuff is food that you eat, but Akins seems too tired even to eat. Finally the child takes a handful of the stuff and puts it in Akins's mouth. At that point, with the compassionate old woman hovering over him, Akins bursts into tears and finally starts to feed himself. You don't expect it from Akins, one of the great tough-guy character actors of the era in film and TV, but it feels utterly spontaneous and you understand without further explanation why he's crying. That's the sort of bonus Fuller brings to his war movies and the sort of thing that makes them worth watching for people who don't like war or war movies in general.

The original trailer has spoilers or history lessons, depending on your perspective. It comes from the Turner Classic Movies website.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

DVR Diary: FAITHLESS (1932)

Contemporary reviewers panned Harry Beaumont's M-G-M Depression romance, deeming it another defeat in star Tallulah Bankhead's attempted conquest of Hollywood. One of the main complaints was an overcomplicated plot. Though the picture is only 76 minutes long, critics complained of false endings as if impatient to go home. But it's that same ingenuity at finding ways to make things worse for the heroine and hero that makes Faithless a genuine if cliched Depression document. Tentatively titled "Tinfoil," (meaning what?) the picture pairs Bankhead as an heiress with Robert Montgomery as an ambitious and proud ad writer, both riding high by their respective status as the Depression deepens around them. The picture opens with a montage of newspaper predictions of the Depression ending in 1930, in 1931, and in 1932, scored with sardonic musical horselaughs. While this goes on, Bankhead and Montgomery bicker over whether she, like a good wife, should live on his $20,000 a year salary -- very good money back then but far below Bankhead's standard of living. The movie seems to set the female up for a fall, but its main point proves to be that both are too proud. The crisis finally comes when Bankhead learns that her trust fund has gone bust, moments after she's decided to make up with Montgomery after their latest fight. She goes to his office and tells her story straight, hoping he'll believe that she's not now after him for his money, only to learn that he's been laid off that same day. He promises to find work and support her, but she thinks she can live off her name and reputation and spends the next months mooching off her fellow socialites, finally selling herself, more or less, to arriviste families who still hope to gain prestige from getting mentioned as her hosts in the local society pages. This career ends in Chicago, where Peter Blainey offers her more money in return for, shall we say, more sociability. Blainey is played by Hugh Herbert, one of Warner Bros.'s comical rakes (he's the one who goes "woo woo"a lot) who just about steals the picture with a pretty much straight portrayal of a repellently vulgar predator. Ashamed of her lot after a random encounter with Montgomery, Bankhead abandons Herbert and, lacking practical skills, ends up on a breadline, finally selling her good shoes to a landlady to make her rent and have money left over to eat. Almost too sick to eat soup in a diner, she meets a forgiving Montgomery again and accepts his latest proposal, which comes with the income of a truck-driving job. The same day that they're married his employer goes out of business. He finds another job soon enough, but it means being a scab. The strikers explain that they're fighting to survive, but despite Montgomery's sympathies the job is the only way he and Bankhead can survive now. The strikers run his truck off the road and internal injuries confine him to bed. The only way Bankhead can raise money for his medical needs is ... well, this is a Pre-Code picture, so you figure it out. She touches bottom when she unwittingly propositions Montgomery's brother, who never liked her and now promises to denounce her to his brother, and then gets caught by a Catholic cop who threatens to throw her in jail for a month unless she kisses the Cross and swears not to walk the streets anymore. The cop proves compassionate, however, and blackmails a restaurant owner into giving Bankhead a waitressing job -- he'll cite the guy for violating an awning ordinance otherwise. Now all that's left is how to deal with hubby when his brother tracks him down with the terrible truth....

It is a pretty melodramatic and episodic story, and to a film critic it probably would seem like a cliched catalogue of misfortune. But don't you suppose the Depression was like that for a lot of people? I don't know if anyone in real life fell as far as Bankhead's heiress does here, but the point is that here M-G-M acknowledges the misery of the Great Depression in a manner more typical of Warner Bros. That probably looks like a retroactive virtue, since its relevance may have mattered less at the time than its unconvincing contrivances. But that relevance makes it worth seeing for Pre-Code buffs, as does the potentially camp spectacle of Tallulah Bankhead suffering through the crisis and Herbert's unexpectedly nasty turn. At the least it's another Hollywood film that addresses the Depression -- one reviewer even claimed it was the first to make the Depression the "villain" of the piece -- compared to how many studio films today that address the Great Recession? Faithless may have told its tale with cliches and melodrama, but it was trying to tell some truth as well, and for that history might add a star or a half to its rating.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Can you imagine a time when pro football was considered nearly as disreputable as professional wrestling? Look no further than the fall of 1932 and Dudley Murphy's film for RKO, a Pre-Code bromance between college football stars Joel McCrea and William Gargan in which McCrea's decision to go pro is the wrong turn in his life. Back then if you played for pay it proved your low character, with high-profile exceptions like iconic "Galloping Ghost" Red Grange, whose experiences in the pro game may have inspired this collaboration between four screenwriters and Robert Benchley, who apparently wrote his own lines for his comedy-relief bits as a drunk or simply confused radio broadcaster.  McCrea washes out in the pros, despite the superiority implicit in his remark to Walter Catlett, a high-pressure promoter, that his eleven is "good for a pro team." He's also had his fill of the corruptions of pro sports, from Catlett's urging that he put some showmanship into his play to the inevitable invitation to throw a game. McCrea's time at Dartmouth left him unprepared for a real career, and by the time he quits football the businessmen who wanted to give the sports celebrity a job have forgotten him. Fortunately, Gargan still longs for the old partnership and hires McCrea as a columnist for the sports section he now edits. Of course a dame comes between them, the sports department staff artist (Marian Marsh), Gargan's girl turned McCrea's. But McCrea feels guilty about two-timing his pal and quits the girl and the job. There's nothing left for him but to take up Catlett's offer, formerly spurned, of a wrestling career. It probably tells you something about pro football in 1932 that a team owner is also a wrestling promoter; this film has the XFL beat by something like seventy years.

Something must have happened to put pro wrestling in the public eye, because some cities had Sport Parade and John Ford's Flesh, the legendary Wallace Beery wrestling picture, playing at the same time. Both films share a shocked horror at the thought that wrestling bouts are fixed and a hero who rebels out of pride against having to do the job in the big match. Here the assumption is that pro wrestling is fixed because people are dumb enough to bet on it. As far as Gargan is concerned McCrea has humiliated Dartmouth by becoming a wrestler with a collegiate gimmick, and a group of alumni confront McCrea and warn him not to wear the sacred D on his ring robe. But Gargan's attitude is based on his assumption that McCrea will do the job; when it becomes clear that McCrea's fighting to win all is forgiven, and when he sees Marsh's faith in McCrea he realizes that she's rightfully McCrea's girl. McCrea officially gives up 15 pounds to his antagonist but in the flesh it looks like more. He clearly yields to a stuntman for the more elaborate work but clearly takes some bumps himself. And here's something you probably didn't know, courtesy of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Chaney was under contract to RKO at this time and had appeared with McCrea in Bird of Paradise earlier in 1932. Whether this entitles him to "uncredited technical advisor" billing, let history judge.

Dudley Murphy is best known for the avant-garde silent short Ballet Mecanique and the Paul Robeson showcase The Emperor Jones. If that partial filmography promises an eccentric feature, Murphy fulfills the promise. He proves fond of gimmicky transitions, most notably a bit where the camera dollies in to a picture of Catlett on a barroom wall, and the picture comes to life to start the next scene. Murphy really gets ambitious in the big wrestling scene, filmed either in a big arena or a convincing studio facsimile. He shoots from all angles, moves the camera freely, and really shows off with a topsy-turvy POV shot as McCrea tumbles across the mat to escape from a submission hold. He also stops the show briefly for a trip to a Cotton Club-type joint with a "savage" dance number seen from a drunkard's multiple-perspectives, almost a cross between Busby Berkeley and Marcel Duchamp. Murphy's showiness is in sync with RKO's Pre-Code tendency to cartoonishness, as is Benchley's irrelevant patter, but he also keeps the film moving at a brisker pace than many Radio Pictures from the period. It almost has the snap of a Warner Bros. picture. Among Pre-Codes in general, it seems unusual for emphasizing beefcake over cheesecake, from a football-team shower scene with naked buttocks in the background to McCrea grappling in some tight and tidy whiteys. You get your racism when a black man's head is rubbed for luck. You get your homophobia when two flaming fairies leave the wrestling arena in disgust at the antics of the brutes. And you get lots and lots of drinking, including from McCrea, a year before Repeal. It has its moments, and on the other hand it's probably less than the sum of its parts, but good or bad Sport Parade looks like an indispensable part of the Pre-Code filmography.

Friday, May 25, 2012

By Special Arrangement with Satan: NOW PLAYING, MAY 25, 1962

Charleston gets pride of place this weekend.

Sounds like a pretty good show on the screen, and the live stuff is a bonus. But shouldn't they be offering an insurance policy in case anyone's heart does hesitate?

Elsewhere, Tuscaloosa AL has the latest outbreak of Cleosploitation.

I'll say it again: this has to be working for somebody. I wonder what the trade journals say.

But what's actually new this weekend? Let's start in Palm Beach:

For more on Lonely Are the Brave, look here. Meanwhile, Toledo has another item already reviewed here.

In Pittsburgh, Peter Sellers is well enough known that exhibitors can exploit his doing something "different."

What makes Never Let Go different? Sellers plays the bad guy in a dramatic film. The Brits themselves found this unusual, as the trailer from TCM demonstrates -- but it still didn't give him top billing over Richard Todd, who as you can see above was not even the equal of Sellers in the U.S.

An exhibitor in Spartanburg SC also tries to make the most of an actor's reputation.

Shootout at Big Sag is one of two films directed this year by Roger Kay. This and The Cabinet of Caligari are Kay's only American features; he worked in TV otherwise, except for one French feature in 1981. Just in case those Oscars don't impress you (and Brennan has since been joined by Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Jack Nicholson), don't forget that the star is on television!

A friendly warning to Schenectady NY: Don't be fooled by imitations!

Prisoner is not an adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask. It's an Italian costume picture that bears as much resemblance to Dumas as Sergio Corbucci's The Man Who Laughs does to Victor Hugo. For the uninitiated, that means: very little and superficial at most. That doesn't mean Prisoner can't be cool, but can it live up to the ad? As for Alakazam the Great, I vaguely remember it running on WPIX out of New York City during the holiday season back in the days when cable TV was new and exotic. Dubbed into English, it's an early Japanese anime adapted from Buddhist folklore and ideas from Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astroboy and lots more. Should you take your kids to both films?

Finally as the day winds down, here's something for the tired businessman in Spokane WA

Very little seems to be known about this film. TCM has no synopsis but provides a cast list, yet IMDB doesn't include a film called Shirt Off Her Back, or anything that might have gone by that name, in the filmographies of the stars listed by TCM, including Marli Renfro and Jay Sayer. Nor is there a listing for the TCM-credited director, Ken Gary. How lost is this movie? And what about Girl From Algiers? No leads there, either. That's how past the past is sometimes.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Now Playing: MAY 24, 1962

Last of the Vikings invades the nation's capital today, and here's some alternate ad art for the occasion. There probably won't be a greater disproportion between 1962 hype and 2012 oblivion than in the campaign for this film.

Also in Washington D.C., here's a double feature that's been working its way around the country this spring.

House of Women could have been called House of Mothers based on the TCM synopsis. Walter Doniger's film focuses on the troubles female prisoners have keeping custody of their children. But it's definitely a tough picture if Andrew Duggan's the romantic lead! Samar is an outdoor adventure set in the 19th century Spanish-ruled Philippines, shot on location by action auteur George Montgomery. I know Montgomery as a director from The Steel Claw, which displayed a sensibility reminiscent of the men's-adventure "sweat" magazines of the era. His follow-up to Samar was Guerrillas in Pink Lace. Obviously a subject for further study, but for now here's a video trailer for Samar that shows the scale of production B-films could achieve in the Philippines.

Trailer provided by Video Detective

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I watch far more movies than I write about, and that frustrates me sometimes. Plenty of films that I see aren't worth writing about, but that still leaves more than I can give the full Mondo 70 treatment. Some have points of interest that don't justify the whole treatment., yet deserve some sort of mention. Most of these films are titles I record on my DVR off Turner Classic Movies or, less often, Fox Movie Channel. When I finally got a DVR last fall I rejoiced over never missing a movie again, yet the thing now strikes me sometimes as an burden, simply because there's so much to record off TCM alone that I'm constantly fighting to whittle down my queue while my DVDs gather dust and promising items at the library go ignored. The least I can do is leave a more complete record of my viewing habits, and so the DVR Diary is my latest attempt at short-form reviews. There's no word limit in my head right now, but the idea is to get these done quickly and with a minimum of illustration. Let's see how I manage.

The Diary begins with one of William A. Wellman's lesser-known features, one that Robert Osborne cited for anticipating John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (or Fort Apache, for that matter) with a sort of "print the legend" finish. Osborne's point is duly noted, and I'd note some inspiration from Citizen Kane in the Wellman's ambitious art direction and the biographical gimmick, but The Great Man's Lady strikes me most as the missing link between Cimarron and Little Big Man. Like Cimarron, this film invites our sympathy for a pioneer woman whose husband goes away for long stretches of the picture, while like Little Big Man the tale is tole by a superannuated survivor of great events -- the same pioneer woman (Barbara Stanwyck) as a miraculously articulate centenarian besieged by reporters on the occasion of the unveiling of a statue to the founder of Hoyt City, Ethan Hoyt (Joel McCrea), to whom the old lady, Hannah Sempler, claims to have been married. The claim itself scandalizes the community, since it would appear to render the great and beloved Hoyt a bigamist, but Hannah's whole story, given up reluctantly to a would-be biographer who cries after her initial refusal, makes Hoyt a less heroic personality, even as Hannah confirms all his famed accomplishments. In her account, which the film itself presents as unquestionable, Ethan is often stupid, stubborn, vicious and craven, and just as often bolstered, backed up and pushed forward by Hannah's long-suffering self. The "print the legend" part comes in when Hannah and the biographer agree that Hoyt's heroic image is more useful to the community, and in the end the old lady tears up the marriage certificate that'd prove her claim while affirming her eternal love for Hoyt.

Hannah's story is a melodramatic ordeal of separations and renunciations, the pathetic climax coming when she loses her twin babies as a flood washes away a bridge with her stagecoach, a disaster that convinces Ethan of Hannah's own death and leads him to remarry. It's the sort of life story that's too bad to be true, and Wellman's play for pathos rings hollow too often. He's less interested in debunking any myth of a heroic Westerner than in honoring the ladies who stand behind every great man and every ordinary guy, according to the preface. Wellman wants to eat his cake and have it too, combining satire with patriotic epic, and the result is a little too sweet, yet unfilling. Given a hopeless role, McCrea is blown off the screen by Stanwyck in one of her first western matriarch roles. Poor McCrea effectively takes second place among males to Brian Donlevy, who plays a character type apparently dear to Wellman's heart, the honest rogue. Bruce Cabot played a rough draft of this type as the virtuous saloonkeeper in The Robin Hood of El Dorado. Here, Donlevy is a gambler and eventual casino owner -- evil incarnate in the usual Western of the period -- redeemed by his honesty (he tells customers up front that the games are rigged and they can't win) and non-violent nature. As in El Dorado, Wellman prefers the archetypal bloodsucker of melodrama to the often-ruthless pioneer, but here he goes to far to make Donleavy's gambler a self-denying saint if not a kind of Christ figure -- he's shot down by McCrea, who blames him for Stanwyck's death, only to rise again and resume his good-hearted huckstering. He could have been Stanwyck's true love but is too decent to press his claim. Arch-heel Donlevy is almost perversely cast against type in a manner that embodies this film's awkward unorthodoxy. He's the picture's unsung hero, but he still can't get the girl. Everyone else sacrifices so McCrea's character can succeed, and we're supposed to be happy for them and McCrea and the people who worship Ethan Hoyt. Maybe that was a message people wanted to see with World War II under way, but I can't help wondering whether Wellman would have made a better, more biting film a decade earlier at his Pre-Code peak.

Now Playing: MAY 23, 1962.

More cool ad design for Last of the Vikings, this time in Nashua, NH:

And some nice alternative ad art for Burn, With Burn! from Salt Lake City. Note the added attraction of a "de-witching ceremony." Wouldn't that leave you without a movie?

Let's take that dare and look into Doctor Blood's Coffin. The trailer was uploaded to YouTube by mirkodamian.

Also in Salt Lake, Hammer's Captain Clegg sneaks into the country under an assumed name.

Here's my review of "Night Creatures." The incongruous companion feature is a Universal release from the previous October and on this evidence a rather sexist service comedy. There's no evidence online to contradict me, but maybe somebody somewhere remembers this fondly....

Monday, May 21, 2012

Pre-Pre-Code Parade: CITY GIRL (1929-30)

The history of Hollywood's transition from silents to talkies is so heavy with tragedies of lost film that it's a relief of a sort to share the last laugh, so to speak, with the forces of entropy and neglect. Fox Film's City Girl was long thought to be no more than a travesty of Our Daily Bread, the third and last film directed for the American studio by "German genius" F. W. Murnau. Worse for posterity, Fox added talking sequences after Murnau had left the studio to shoot his final film, Tabu, and tried to pass the results off in the spring of 1930 as an all-talking film in their advertising. Here's what Film Daily thought of their efforts.

The 67-minute film Film Daily reviewed is lost. In its place, we have an 88-minute silent film. While the extent to which it represents Murnau's ultimate intentions is still in dispute, it can't help but come closer to what he intended than the "antiquated" abomination the 1930 reviewers saw. The surviving silent falls short of Murnau's design from the very start. As noted above, he'd wanted to call the film Our Daily Bread, and the title change -- as the poster above shows, Murnau's title was used in some territories -- is supposed to be one of the reasons he left Fox. I revere the director of Nosferatu, Der Letzte Mann and Sunrise as much as any film buff, but on this occasion I think the studio had the better idea. Murnau seems to have had a notion that he was making an epic of bread with a framing device of an urban waitress, someone who serves a lot of bread, going to the countryside where the wheat is raised -- where "our daily bread" comes from. The folks at Fox must have worried that the title sounded too biblical -- though that wouldn't stop King Vidor a few years later -- or simply too pretentious. City Girl actually gets closer to the essence of the film we have today, serving as an epithet as well as identifying the principal character. If the film we have today results from studio tampering, the actual result is a film that comes across as more modern in many ways than Murnau's great success for Fox, the quasi-pastoral, folkloric Sunrise. It also comes across as a kind of antithesis or apology for some of the thematic or stylistic excesses of the earlier film, whether that's how Murnau meant it or not. Between director and studio, City Girl emerges as a transitional film from the sentimentality of silents to the sensibility of Pre-Code talking cinema.

The star of the picture is Charles Farrell, a romantic idol normally paired with Janet Gaynor, who had starred in Murnau's two previous films. But the main character is played by Mary Duncan, an actress who had appeared with Gaynor in the lost middle film, Four Devils. Farrell plays Lem Tustine, scion of a wheat-growing family whose future depends on Lem selling the crop at $1.15 a bushel at the Chicago Trade Mart on his first trip to the big city. He takes his meals at Johnson's Place, a vast diner where Kate (Duncan) toils and dreams of escape. She's only seen the countryside in advertising art, but it's gotta be better than her urban drudgery. When her fellow waitresses snicker when Lem says grace before eating, Kate is charmed by his simplicity and his tales of farm life. For Lem, Kate's a welcome distraction from the pressure of the market, where wheat has fallen below the price his dad set and is still trending down. Should he wait for the price to go up again? He finally decides to cut his losses and sell at $1.12 -- and to ask Kate to marry him. After nearly losing each other between the diner and the train station, she eagerly accepts his proposal.

For Lem's father (the baleful David Torrence), Lem's marriage is nearly as great a disaster as his failure to sell the wheat at the right price. Tustine blames Kate for distracting Lem from his proper focus on the market, and suspects her of being a gold digger. Kate doesn't take crap from anybody, however, and on the other hand Tustine isn't used to defiance. The old man literally tries to bend her to his will, but she bites his fingers and he slaps her face. She remains defiantly determined to make a man of Lem, who has slunk off submissively under his father's wrath and is soon the laughingstock of the farm workers who promptly set about ogling Kate, who finds herself waitressing again when Tustine demands that she make herself useful. Chief among the oglers is Mac (Richard Alexander) who thinks that the estrangement Tustine has forced on Lem and Kate is his opening to score with the city girl. She's having none of it, but the self-loathing Lem can't help doubting her fidelity. The crisis builds to a climax as Mac turns against Tustine in a harebrained attempt to avenge Kate and win her by ruining the wheat crop, Kate finally quits the farm after one accusation too many, and Lem finally mans up and stands up to everybody....

In Sunrise, the rustic hero is tempted to do an American Tragedy on his wife by the malevolent "Woman from the City," an archetypal vamp whom Murnau films almost like a literal one -- and he should know how -- stalking the swamps by moonlit night.  Kate Tustine is a very different woman from the city, come to the country not to prey upon its guileless men but to find refuge from the very city that spawned her. Yet rural perceptions of women from the city turn her idyll into an ordeal, whether the men look upon her with loathing like Pa Tustine or with lude assumptions like Mac. The sympathetic focus on Kate rather than Lem makes City Girl almost a full-scale reversal of Sunrise, focusing on the city girl's disillusionment with rural life or, more specifically, rural men, and you can see how, despite it sad fate, the later film was designed to appeal more to real city girls than its almost mythological predecessor. Mary Duncan rises to the occasion with a performance balancing assertiveness and vulnerability, no shrinking violet yet not implausibly masterful. Whether Murnau directed all her scenes or not, she's consistently appealing and holds the picture together as Farrell recedes sulkingly into the background until the climax.

Murnau tones down the expressionism this time, reminding us that he was a master of location shooting as well as forced-perspective sets. His setbound Chicago is no fantasyland like the city of Sunrise, though there are hints of the same aesthetic sense in the sets, and the gigantic Johnson's Place definitely looks like it belongs in the earlier film. City Girl makes its impressions more often in miniature, especially in the view of a city of billboards and elevated trains from Kate's flat. The idea is to contrast the crowded crampedness of Kate's city (and the heat; Duncan really sells her character's craving for air from fans) with the wide-open space of wheat country, which Murnau shows off with an exhilarating tracking shot of the newlyweds romping and racing through the fields. A lot of the farm sequences, especially scenes set a night, are studio shoots, albeit brilliantly shot for mood and lighting by Ernest Palmer, but the daylight scenes of actual farm labor have a documentary authenticity that grounds the film's visual contrast of city and country even as the story critiques the stereotypical contrast.  I don't know how suddenly the old man is won over in the truncated part-talkie version, but his conversion in the silent version comes after a dramatically shot showdown involving a fight between Lem and Mac on a runaway wagon, with Tustine poised to shoot the renegade Mac but just as likely to plug his son instead. In a nice touch, the climax is punctuated by a bullet blasting a lantern and plunging the screen into total darkness, finally broken by a title card that practically leaps into the seats -- "FATHER!" If City Girl strikes a Murnau fan as a ramping down from Sunrise, at least it betrays no decline in narrative or evocative power.

More than Sunrise, in fact, and more than the subsequent Tabu, City Girl inspires a wistful confidence that Murnau might have made it as a Pre-Code director. He was under contract to Paramount at the time of his death by traffic accident in 1931, but you can't help wondering what kind of talkies he would have made in a period not exactly conducive to his folkloric tales. The gritty blatancy of Pre-Code seems no better fit for Murnau than it might have been for, say, Tim Burton. I suppose we can imagine Murnau helming such Paramount horrors as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Island of Lost Souls; whether he could have made more of them than their respective actual directors is hard to say. Gangster pictures or the typical Paramount decadent romantic comedy also seem out of his league; Murnau would have had to find his niche alongside the likes of Lubitsch, Mammoulian and Sternberg, but how? City Girl shows him moving, possibly against his own will, toward a sensibility more congenial to the era he missed. If anything, it feels more like a Warner Bros. picture than anything Paramount might have assigned him -- and any resemblance to Warners is a good sign for a Pre-Code filmmaker. City Girl is nowhere near the spectacular artistic triumph of Sunrise, but its more modest accomplishment makes you believe that Murnau would have been more than a flash in the pan, and might have been around for the long haul, had he the chance.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: THE HATCHET MAN (1932)

Pre-Code cinema is beloved by many for an almost quaint though sometimes still vital transgressiveness, but here's a Pre-Code picture that's probably more transgressive now than it was when it was released. The reason is obvious: William Wellman's movie, yet another from his torrent of work for Warner Bros., features Edward G. Robinson as a Chinese man -- and not just a man, but a "hatchet man," the designated executioner for a Chinatown tong. Apart from bit players and extras, all the speaking parts are played by white actors in "yellowface" or slant-eyed makeup, including ingenue Loretta Young. If The Hatchet Man is not quite as transgressive as, say, the Amos 'n Andy vehicle Check and Double Check, it's only because Wellman and his team aren't consciously out to mock another race. In fact, they, like the playwrights whose work The Honorable Mr. Wong they adapted, probably thought they were honoring the humanity of the Chinese people, and by the standards of their own time they probably were. Even if we can't take that pretense seriously, there's an interesting mix of ethnic stereotypes and melodramatic conventions, as well as an attempt to transcend both in a matrix of self-conscious modernity before a violent finish.

Robinson is a strange presence in a role and plot more suited to the late Lon Chaney Sr. Perhaps because someone perceived an "Asiatic" cast to Robinson's Romanian-Jewish features, he plays his part with only minimal makeup, compared to the rest of the cast. From certain angles, or under certain lighting, he seems not to be wearing "oriental" makeup at all. Nor does he attempt a Chinese accent, but neither do any of the other actors. What we get instead is the sometimes stilted dialogue that signified "foreign" in American pop culture, though this movie swings back and forth from the stilted "honorable" manner -- you could play a drinking game based on the use of that word -- to casual "Number One Son" type dialogue for the younger generation. Had the film been made a decade earlier, it probably would have been a Chaney vehicle. But with Robinson, Wellman and Warners involved it becomes more than anything Chaney or his usual collaborators might have made of it. But the story still reads like a Chaney film. It opens with a prologue set "fifteen years ago" with Wong Low Get (Robinson) reluctantly obeying orders to eliminate an old friend, who just happened to have written Wong into his will. Obviously it's not a comfortable situation for anyone, but the victim sees no reason to rewrite his will, which stipulates that Wong is to raise the victim's daughter as his own, and then marry her. The little girl is in the next room playing with a doll as Wong discreetly closes the door leading into her room before sadly doing his duty. We see his shadow pitch his trusty hatchet at the victim's head, and Wellman cuts to the girl's doll, which has just lost its head.
Over the next fifteen years Chinatown has modernized, and a text crawl informs us that tong wars have become a thing of the past. Wong Low Get has modernized and wears modern American clothes in his office. Implicitly repudiating the old ways that led him to kill his friend, Wong is all for modernity, defending his secretary's right to show off her sexy calves -- it's an improvement on footbinding -- and his daughter's right to get a modern education. Wellman cuts abruptly from Wong's high-minded hymn to self-improvement to the daughter, Toya (Young) partying at a dance hall with her unsavory Americanized boyfriend Henry (Leslie Fenton) until she slaps him for getting too fresh. Whatever her plans for the future, Wong intends to carry out his obligation to marry her, but first has to nip a new tong war in the bud. While he goes to negotiate a settlement in his old haunt of Sacramento, the local tong assigns Harry to bodyguard Toya. In Sacramento, Wong finds that a lone-wolf American gangster has been egging on the rival tong. The round-eye says the war will go on until he gets what's coming to him. A newspaper report of his death makes clear that he did get his. Upon returning, Wong discovers Toya and Harry engaged in heavy petting. He's faster with his hatchet than Harry is with his gun and practically chops the younger man's hand off disarming him. Toya refuses to see Harry die, reminding Wong that he swore never to deny her happiness and affirming her love for Harry. This brings on the big moment of melodramatic renunciation as Wong lets both young people go. A Chaney film may have ended here, but the worst is yet to come.

By sparing Harry and surrendering Toya to him, Wong has lost face in a big way. His tong cronies now see him as a coward and shun him. Worse yet, they boycott him, ordering everyone in the tong not to do business with him. They taunt him by delivering a coffin and reminding him that it should hold either Harry's corpse or the remains of Wong's honor. The coffin proves only another thing Wong can auction off after he loses his business. He resigns himself to lowly farm labor until a letter in English arrives from China. To the surprise of probably no one in the audience, Harry proves an asshole and a loser. Caught trying to sell opium, he gets deported, and since Toya never got a birth certificate, she's stuck back in China with him, in a state of "living death." Now she realizes that she loved Wong all along, but as far as Wong is concerned it's never too late to get good new. Now all he has to do is scrape together his savings, get his hatchet out of hock, work his way across the Pacific as a coal stoker, and find Toya somewhere in China. After a lot of walking -- we see him getting his shoes repaired, apparently not for the first time -- he finds his girl, whom the opium-addled, nightmare-haunted Harry has sold to an innkeeper. This discovery sets up an ending that the original audiences reportedly found shocking for its violence yet satisfying in its consequences.

Like Wellman's The Public Enemy, The Hatchet Man is suggestively rather than explicitly violent much of the time. It's most shocking in its presentation of the consequences of violence, echoing Public Enemy in showing us a dead man trussed up and left upright and topping it by having the victim topple backwards off a pier into the ocean. It's that moment that provokes the long-peaceful Wong to take up the hatchet again, and the whole sequence of discovering the body of an employee and fishing him out of the water is the most powerful scene of the picture. At other moments Wellman, admittedly a man in a hurry in those days, misses the mark. He stages an elaborate opening sequence on an impressive Chinatown set as the neighborhood battens down the hatches for a tong war, but he dissipates the impact of his tracking shots by repeatedly cutting back to the image of a war banner every time a gong sounds. There's nothing wrong with crosscutting, but when your alternate shot is nothing but a static image, there's hardly a point to the practice. Overall, the film has nice sets and overall production design, but too many of the players are unconvincing as Chinese people despite heavy makeup (Young's being nearly the heaviest and Fenton's simply the worst) while Robinson makes so little effort to be Chinese, apart from a few "honorables" and the occasional proverb that suspending disbelief is nearly impossible. Robinson remains so compelling a presence, however, that you can just about accept Hatchet Man as just another Robinson picture, which is hardly a bad thing.

You might argue that Robinson's resistance to the expected chinoiserie is in keeping with the picture's implicitly critical stance toward both Chinese stereotypes and old-timey melodrama and pathos. The two phenomena go together: it takes stereotypical character types, not excluding white ones, for the old melodramatic conventions to work, for people to behave in the self-denying, "honorable" ways melodrama demands. Modernity doesn't have to settle for conventions. Toya doesn't have to bind her feet. Wong doesn't have to settle for whatever solace follows from supposedly having done the right thing. Pre-Code audiences -- that is to say, Depression audiences -- weren't as impressed with the pathos of renunciation as they might have been in the otherwise Roaring Twenties. They responded to survival ethics and applauded characters who played to win, from gold diggers to hatchet men. If they could see Robinson's hatchet man as a hero, despite his less-than-superficial otherness, then maybe Hatchet Man was a progressive picture after all. You just wish a little that Warners could have found work for some more Chinese actors during hard times. If they couldn't do without Robinson, then at least he could have buried a hatchet in Keye Luke's bean to save Anna May Wong's honor. But lapses in sensitivity and taste are part of Pre-Code's strange charm, and while they may not redeem this picture for most modern observers, Hatchet Man's somewhat self-conscious struggle with its own stereotyped nature makes it another item of interest for those fascinated by the era, warts and all.

Warner Bros. was great about preserving their trailers, and here's one for The Hatchet Man, courtesy of TCM.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Now Playing: MAY 18, 1962

In Charleston, Cleosploitation returns!

This sort of exploitation is close to inconceivable today. Think back a decade and ask if anyone would go see a double feature of a Brad Pitt picture and an Angelina Jolie movie just because Jolie had wrecked Pitt's marriage to another celebrity? Yet the fact that I'm seeing these Taylor-Burton double-bills so often in 1962 has to mean the idea must be working for somebody.

Speaking of exploitation, Adolf Hitler plays Lumberton, NC this weekend.

And speaking of obsolete personalities, check out Rome, NY

Do you suppose somebody was thinking, "The Three Stooges came back!" Or was there still genuine interest in the Boys, who hadn't released a feature since 1958? Hard to believe, yet it may be so.

A triple-bill of more recent films doesn't seem like enough for a St. Joseph, MO exhibitor. For this drive-in, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of the sundae, is a live version of Premature Burial.

What was the idea exactly? Were people expected to come to the theater every night to check on the progress of the buried man? I guess that if you were a real skeptic you might try for that cool grand by proving the guy a fake. Maybe you went to one feature each night and spent the rest of the evening studying the pit. Now that's entertainment!

But maybe you spent your weekend that way because you couldn't get into something like this attraction in Spartansburg, SC.

The Private Life of a Teenage Bride may be better known as Please Don't Touch Me. For more info, here's a synopsis from TCM. The second feature is Sam Peckinpah's directorial debut. Parental permission may have been required for young folks to see some of his later stuff....

Thursday, May 17, 2012

WORLD ON A WIRE (Welt am Draht, 1973)

The American novelist Daniel F. Galouye was a contemporary of Phillip K. Dick and shared some of Dick's concerns about the vulnerability of identity amid advancing technology and complex social systems. Galouye's 1960s novel Simulacron-3 is reminiscent of Dick's work not only in its paranoid anxiety but in its appeal to movies. Two films have been made from it so far, Hollywood taking its crack with The Thirteenth Floor in 1999. Rainer Werner Fassbinder took his shot a quarter-century earlier. Welt am Draht is a two-part miniseries stretching over nearly 3.5 hours made for West German television. It may qualify as the first "cyberpunk" movie, and owing to the time it was made and Fassbinder's own aesthetic sense it resembles more closely than overproduced Hollywood adaptations the world Phillip K. Dick himself imagined. Dick, and probably Galouye too, were concerned with the plight of grey-flannel-suit, Organization Man types in an ever more bureaucratized, commercialized and commodified future. By toning down the spectacle, whether from necessity or preference, Fassbinder zeros in on the psychological unease that defines these proto-cyberpunk works.

World on a Wire is almost a generic story of its kind. An unscrupulous corporation and unrestrained scientists have developed a virtual reality environment of artificial intelligences simulating ordinary human social life, to serve as the ultimate focus group for advertising, opinion polls, etc. Mysterious deaths and disappearances lead our hero Fred Stiller (the compactly tense Klaus Loewitsch) to question first his place in reality, then reality's place in reality. You know the drill; someone you know vanishes, but then no one else has ever heard of him. You learn that scientists can enter the virtual world and live the lives of the simulated people, and that the transfer can be a two-way street. Is that woman who claims to love you a real person or a simulation possessing a human shell? Is yours the real world or the simulation, or a little of both? Naturally, Stiller gets a little agitated and the falling trees, plunging shipping palettes and exploding houses don't help things.


Can you blame our hero for getting a little upset?

The situation gives Fassbinder opportunities to satirize contemporary culture. The scenes at a cabaret featuring a Marlene Dietrich impersonator are obviously intended to underscore how much of our own pop culture is a simulation. At the same time, Fassbinder takes advantage of the simulated nature of movie genres. Stiller's predicament, the uncertainty over whether his world is real, enables him to be a kind of action hero, fighting, running, escaping, chasing and being chased. The fact is, Stiller's "real" world isn't any more real than the world of the simulations -- it's only a movie, which is worth bearing in mind if you're tempted to wonder what the generically ambiguous ending proves.

Is Mascha Rabben (as Welt am Draht's love interest) human?
Who are we to judge?

Apart from Fassbinder's literary influences, the shadow of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville doesn't just hover over this movie -- the director invites it in by casting the French film's star, Eddie Constantine, in a cameo role. Fassbinder's film is more immediately enjoyable in a generic way than Godard's, but it echoes Godard's lesson that the key to making a low-budget sci-film is style rather than special-effects. World on a Wire has a "day after tomorrow" aesthetic that's stylized enough to feel alien without really looking alien. It depends on the director's selection of locations, the sensibility of the costumers, and above all on the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz, who give many of the interiors a blue-grey glint that suffices to make things just a little strange, just a little different from now. No flying cars are necessary.


The miniseries takes a little while to get going, taking perhaps too much time to establish a mood of almost perfunctory decadence, but by the second half it moves pretty briskly to keep up with its harried hero. With patience it establishes itself convincingly as a sci-fi movie milestone and a prescient piece of pop cinema from an arthouse idol who didn't live to see his concept become commonplace.