Saturday, June 30, 2012

On the Big Screen: MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)

Cross Stanley Kubrick and Harvey Kurtzman, or maybe Charles Schulz and Sergio Leone, and you have Wes Anderson, one of today's most distinctive and divisive directors. Anderson combines an absurdist sensibility bordering on the parodic with a rigorous widescreen aesthetic that saps the life from his stories for some viewers. He often seems like a man out of his time, perhaps never more so than in his new film, a period piece set in 1965. Anderson wasn't even born yet, but he has clearly been shaped by the period. I can empathize; slightly older than the director, I grew up fascinated by the pop culture of the years just before my birth, collecting magazines like Life and watching reruns of old shows on TV. It really was a world where Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten could share space on a soundtrack, a country with a genuine common (albeit still exclusionary) popular culture. Anderson gets the humor of the period, the paradoxical naive sophistication exemplified by Schulz's Peanuts, which Anderson has referenced before ("Christmastime is Here" plays on the Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack) and references in his new film more than ever. The dog of the picture is Snoopy; the protagonist says "Rats!" in a frustrated moment; a minor character called "Lazy-Eye" reminded me, at least, of a sequence when Linus had to wear an eyepatch to correct that once-notorious condition. Moonrise Kingdom is Peanuts for adolescents, incorporating puberty and rebellion against parents in Anderson's mock-epic mode. It's a story of two troubled early-teens who run away from their respective homes and occasionally lash out at their pursuers, narrated and tangentially participated in by Bob Balaban in a manner that suggests another mash-up: Badlands adapted for television by Rankin and Bass.

The boy is an orphan, an emotional misfit, a scout who doesn't fit in. The girl is iconically dressed like an embodiment of the moment, hates her parents, and steals fantasy novels from the library. It feels like a story that could have been filmed in 1965, though it would have been somewhat less violent, or at least less bloody, than the 2012 film. It's not about 1965 in any critical or nostalgic way; Mad Men this isn't. The dating is more a matter of art direction than anything else. The adults are the sort of eccentric fuddy-duddies you might find in an AIP beach picture of the period, though the eccentricity of Anderson's adults is strangely buttoned-down and underdeveloped. The director who restored Bill Murray to credibility as a comic actor practically wastes Murray this time by casting him as a generically crabby protective parent. There's nothing tailored to the star in the role, but Murray's here because that's what's expected. Bruce Willis is here as a schlub of a policeman because he needs to remind us every few years that he can act. Harvey Keitel has a small role because maybe Anderson expects people to cheer his mere presence the way they did on the opening weekend of Pulp Fiction. Throw in Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton and you have an adult cast overwhelmingly overqualified for the material, with only Norton getting a really comedic role to play with as an overzealous, insecure scoutmaster. Yet for all that the talent seems wasted, the film itself isn't a waste. It's not as rich an experience as it could be, mainly because Anderson can't take seriously the peril he puts his protagonists in, but it's also not as superficial as his detractors might assume. The picture is superficial, but Anderson's commitment to period appearances allows him to work on an evocative, archetypal level, while the two young protagonists, played by Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, are appealing in their alienation and their urge for adventure. Anderson works on a take-it-or-leave-it level. Many people may be left cold by his style without it reflecting on their taste, while I like a director who can work the wide screen and for whom style is substance. Moonrise Kingdom is a comic book of a movie, as opposed to a comic-book movie. It can get by on looks because the mock-epic framing is essential to Anderson's comedic intentions. It may not satisfy people looking for more profound pathos or more powerful gags, but it works as what it is, and that works for me.

Friday, June 29, 2012

THE ORGANIZER (I compagni, 1963)

Mario Monicelli was one of the leading directors of commedia all'italiana -- "Italian Style" in a common translation. In an interview recoded for the Criterion Collection in 2006 -- four years before the nonagenarian director jumped to his death and six before Criterion finally released I Compagni on DVD, Monicelli relates that all'italiana was a label sometimes used pejoratively, by Italians, to compare Italian film comedies unfavorably with reputedly more sophisticated English fare. Monicelli himself takes a broad view of comedy, noting that Dante used the term to describe his long poem that included a descent into Hell as well an ascent to Heaven. Comedy, in Monicelli's view, can cover a lot of ground, and needn't have a happy ending. His own special comedic subject seemed to be human fallibility, as illustrated in 1963's epic-scale account of a failed textile strike in early 20th century Turin. The picture ends with the strikers returning to work after a teenaged comrade has been killed, with one of the leaders in jail and another on the run. What makes it a comedy?

Without worrying about genre, we can be impressed by what we see. Location photography and overall cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno give a strong sense of time and place, the sordidness of life in and out of the factory. The story, by Monicelli and two collaborators, captures the moment when factory workers can't stand their treatment by management any longer. They work fourteen-hour shifts with only a half-hour break for lunch. Exhausted before the day ends, they become vulnerable to accidents, as when a machine mangles an old man's arm. You can be sure they're not getting paid enough for all of it. Indignant, the workers also lack initiative. A plan to leave work early to protest conditions falls through due to failures of coordination and courage, but the workers are still punished for the slight inconvenience they caused the bosses. Enter an itinerant "professor" (Marcello Mastroianni) with an apparent history of labor agitation and timely advice on how to prepare for a strike. For example: before you let anyone know you're going on strike, buy as much as you can on credit, since the store owners aren't likely to give you credit once you've walked out. The professor helps the initial ringleaders work out a leadership structure and establish discipline. Ironically, an early test case of their authority is their decision to grant a severely indigent Sicilian with children to feed  -- we've already seen him go without lunch at work -- special permission to continue working. After they see his family's poverty, you can tell that they'll let him work, but they insist that he swear to abide by their decision one way or the other. For all their trouble, when the bosses learn that the Sicilian has reported to work only because the strikers gave him permission, they throw him out of the factory. I think we can call that comedy, albeit a very dry kind.

Mastroianni's entrance is merely a backdrop for another character's snowball fight, but the star eventually occupies the foreground of the picture.

Overall, I suppose the comedy comes as Monicelli's comical proletariat blunders its way toward solidarity, even though one of the most comical characters is killed trying to divert a trainload of strikebreakers during a brawl at the train station. It might be time for pathos in someone else's movie, but Monicelli doesn't really go for the heartstrings as blatantly as some comedy directors do. His goal is sympathy, not pity. The closest he gets to all-out pathos is at the end, when a boy who had been urged to continue his schooling to secure a better future for himself reports for work at the factory after the strike. This scene of defeated ambition -- though it must be noted that the boy himself wasn't that keen on school -- is balanced by the escape of Renato Salvatori's character, once an apathetic cynic, now radicalized and ready to fight another day. That balance may be the essence of Monicelli's comedy, at least on this occasion. No defeat is total, and sometimes the survivors are better off for their defeat. Defeat itself isn't inconsistent with comedy. In slapstick comedy, the clowns probably lost more often than they won. Part of the comedy was our enjoyment of their transgression with the knowledge that they'd get a comeuppance for sticking their necks out. The strikers in The Organizer are really doing the same thing, with the same result, but just as we assume that the slapstick clown will be back for more, we can leave Monicelli's theater assuming that the workers are down but not out.

Strikers smuggle coal over a railyard fence into their neighborhood

The professor tries in vain to discourage strikebreakers

The final showdown at the factory, with Renato Salvatori holding the sign at left.

In the U.S., a film literally translated as "Comrades" was sold as "The Organizer," a Mastroianni star vehicle. The poster above even shows a clean-shaven Marcello, not the bearded tramp the film gives us. Critics can go too far in emphasizing the ensemble nature of the film, since Mastroianni's professor is a necessary galvanizer for the disgruntled yet disorganized workers. He doesn't arrive until about half an hour into the picture, but his is still a star turn. By introducing a large cast of characters before Mastroianni enters, Monicelli does make it clear that they all matter, and that we should judge the professor by his effect on them. Salvatori's performance is nearly as much a star turn, since he gets the most dramatic arc and he's nearly as charismatic an actor as Mastroianni. But the actors are good down the line in establishing broad-stroke authenticity. They're certainly comedic in comparison to the heroic types we might expect from a Marxist director. Monicelli claims to have been a Marxist, but stalwart socialist realism had no appeal for him. I Compagni is cinematic Marxism all'italiana, class consciousness with a human face, without taking victory for granted. But your politics shouldn't determine your enjoyment of a film that's more humane than political, more interested in people than dogma. It might prove a useful reminder to some people of why unions once seemed necessary to so many people, but even if it doesn't convince anyone of unions' persistent relevance, anyone with a heart should like The Organizer and his comrades.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

DVR Diary: VIOLENT ROAD (1958)

William Friedkin's Sorceror is the best-known American remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic road thriller The Wages of Fear, but Howard W. Koch's B-movie is the uncredited first. Don Martin didn't claim to base his story, nor Richard H. Landau his screenplay, on the French film from a few years earlier, but come on, people. A disparate group of drifters and losers haul explosive cargo across dangerous terrain. Please. This time it's rocket fuel, which has to move with a test base after a launch goes bad and the missile crashes into a school. If Violent Road is one part Wages of Fear, it's also part noir. The most noirish thing about it is that, unlike in Wages of Fear, the drifters and losers don't have to leave their own country to have their dangerous adventure. Noir is arguably a looking-inward after World War II closed off most of the possibilities for adventuresome exile in exotic parts. There's no going away to forget for Violent Road's protagonists. Probably the best adjusted of them is top-billed Brian Keith's hard-boiled drifter. Others include a broken-down veteran who never adjusted to civilian life, a young man hoping to redeem his alcoholic ex-football hero brother, and a rocket technician who lost his wife and daughter in the disaster. Tempers are nearly as combustible as the cargo, but Violent Road never really ignites the way a Wages knockoff should. The actors, including Dick Foran as the sarge and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as the rocket man, do what they can with their roles, but Koch (who got his start as a director collaborating with Edmond O'Brien on Shield For Murder) doesn't deliver the jolts. On the most literal level, to spoil things a bit, none of the trucks goes boom. I don't know if that's a Code-dictated copout or if Koch couldn't spring for an exploding truck. Instead, he offers perils in the form of minor rockslides -- one of the crew saves a truck by drop-kicking a boulder to change its course -- and an out-of-control school bus crossing the convoy's path. Not everyone makes it, I must admit, but when your one fatality results from chemical burns to someone's hand, you're not really operating on Wages's level of intensity. There's decent location work and stunt driving throughout, but someone unaware of Wages's influence on this film would probably feel very little sense of peril, since most of the suspense I felt came from expectations based on my awareness of the source material. No set piece in this picture comes close to the tension of the bridge scenes in either Wages or Sorceror. In fact, the Violent Road convoy never crosses a bridge with anything at stake. That may be another failure of budget or simply a failure of nerve. The first half hour of the picture seems to set up a worthy imitation of the original, but the talent runs out of gas long before the trucks reach their destination.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

DVR Diary: WE'RE IN THE MONEY (1935)

As a team, Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell were sometimes known as "the Gimme Girls." In the Pre-Code era, they were Warner Bros.'s apex predators in the gold-digger category. Since they were apparently a popular pair, the challenge for Warners was how to keep them doing their thing in the era of Code Enforcement from 1934 forward. Frequent co-star Hugh Herbert was put to work (in his writerly identity of "F. Hugh Herbert") contriving a story; he shares the script credit and gets third billing in Ray Enright's picture. How to keep the girls chasing men? Make them process servers working for Herbert's law firm. That way they can infiltrate male sanctuaries with feminine wiles or simply storm in with their characteristic brazenness, as when they invade a men-only steamroom to serve a subpoena early in the show. Blondell's character is tiring of the racket, however, and wants to settle down with her chauffeur boyfriend (Ross Alexander), but Farrell eggs her into taking on one more big job for a big payday. They have to serve papers on three diverse cronies of a young millionaire being sued for breach of promise by Claire La Claire, Herbert's client, who lapses in and out of a French accent depending on her temper. The girls' targets are a sort of gangster (Lionel Stander), a nightclub singer (vocalist Phil Regan playing an approximation of himself) and a professional wrestler (Brooklyn-born "Kentucky Hillbilly" Man-Mountain Dean playing himself in no uncertain terms). All these big brave men are fleeing from "supeenies" requiring them to testify against their millionaire pal C. Richard Courtney, who has his own strategy for avoiding legal papers. It may not surprise readers to learn that his method is to travel as his own liveried chauffeur, in which role he has fallen in love with Blondell without knowing her work, while she has no inkling that her boyfriend "Carter" is subpoena target number one.

Since Blondell and Farrell have to tone down their sex appeal under the new Hollywood rules, Herbert and Enright pad We're In the Money with extended slapstick sequences. As a result, we get to see Man Mountain Dean, who worked his way into becoming Hollywood's go-to rassler in this period, in his squared-circle element. He wrestles "Chief Pontiac, the Indian Marvel" (Chief Little Wolf) in a charming scene highlighting the behavior of pro-wrestling audiences in the 1930s. Pontiac is the babyface in this match, and our heroines join in rooting for him by going "woo-woo-woo" in supposed Indian style. They heckle Dean as Pontiac struggles to pin him and finally end up with the big man in their laps when the Chief tosses him out of the ring. Since they need him to verify his identity, they advise the dazed grappler that the best way to come to is to recall his name and other personal details. His identity confirmed (for story purposes his legal name is "Man Mountain Dean."), the girls hand him a "good luck note" as he climbs back into the ring. Once he finds out it's a "supeeny" he hulks up and destroys Pontiac while the audience, joining in on the joke, showers him with papers of all sorts. In the other slapstick setpiece Blondell, Farrell and Herbert pursue Alexander's yacht in a speedboat that none of them really know how to steer. There's actually some quite effective process work in this bit, especially when the car speeds through the shadows beneath a pier. Taking the initiative, Blondell jumps from the boat into the drink so Alexander's crew will rescue her. The lovers bristle when they discover each other's impostures and Alexander throws Blondell back into the ocean. He thinks better of it, but the indignant Blondell finally dives in once more -- and this time the camera is close enough to show us that Blondell herself took the dive.

The plot plays out in familiar farcical fashion, with Alexander checkmating Herbert and spiting Blondell by agreeing to marry Claire La Claire, thus clearing himself of breach-of-promise. Once it becomes clear that a key piece of evidence against Alexander was doctored, there's a last mad dash to the rescue to prevent his marrying the real gold-digger of the picture. In the end, We're In the Money succeeds somewhat in perpetuating the good-natured aggression that defined the Blondell-Farrell team while toning it down by emphasizing Blondell's longing for domesticity. Herbert seems somewhat out of place as an unlikely infantile lawyer, a nut comic in the screwball era, but he does get his laughs and deserves some credit as a writer for his effort to solve the puzzle of carrying Blondell-Farrell into the Code Enforcement era. Enright keeps things moving and that's about as much as we could ask of him. Blondell and Farrell teamed twice more afterward, the last time being, appropriately enough, Gold Diggers of 1937.  Could they have kept the act going longer without Code Enforcement? Hard to say, since they'd still have gotten older, but Money hints that the Gimme Girls could have adapted to changing times quite nicely, though preferably with somewhat better material.

TCM's trailer seems cut down a bit, but notice the mockery of their own picture G-Men, the "Cagney reforms" picture -- as if to say the "G-Girls" haven't reformed at all.

Monday, June 25, 2012


The Great Depression must have left many people wondering what they would have done differently before the great crash, had they a chance. A fantasy story in which one man gets the chance, even if only in his dream, had natural potential in 1933. The comic potential is obvious, too, and that's why we have Lee Tracy starring in Edgar Selwyn's film, co-written by the director with ace scripter Ben Hecht. Selwyn counts as a singular Pre-Code fantasist for making this picture as well as the future-war prophecy film Men Must Fight, in which he visualizes the bombing of New York City. Tracy plays Joe Gimlett, who's struggling through the Depression running a cigar store and doing better than many. He and his wife have a few thousand dollars salted away, When an old buddy made good invites him to invest in a business proposition that could make him $20,000 in a year, Joe's wife vetoes the idea. Frustrated with his lack of progress in life, Joe dreams himself back into his past under anaesthesia after a car accident. Anticipating Peggy Sue Got Married, Tracy inhabits his younger self circa 1910, which makes for some cute initial confusion between Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. Discovering that he seems to have a fresh chance, Joe accepts a business proposition he'd rejected in his past past and marries the vivacious girl who would have become his rich friend's wife, the friend marrying Joe's real-time wife instead. Joe is able to exploit his foreknowledge to some extent -- he strikes it rich by investing in trucking at the start of World War I -- but at other times his predictions and warnings only make him look crazy. Audiences in the last days of Prohibition would certainly laugh when Joe, noticing the open abundance of alcohol, talks about bootleggers and speakeasies to universal incomprehension. The fish-out-of-water angle becomes most bizarre, in retrospect, when Joe heckles some musicians performing at his wedding reception for singing old-fashioned songs. The singers are the unbilled Larry Fine and Moe and Jerry Howard -- the Three Stooges unaccompanied by Ted Healy, and the weird thing about their one scene in the picture is the way they play complete straight men for Tracy, baffled by his requests for songs as yet unwritten. Moe and Larry have tamed their signature hair into period styles, and none of the Stooges do anything characteristic -- no slapping or insults of any kind. This must have been the sort of work that made Columbia Pictures appealing to them.

Anyway, Turn Back the Clock acquires some bite whenever Joe gets to play a Cassandra, though you get the sense that Tracy could have attacked the material more strongly. A scene where he addresses recruits bound for the World War that he fought in his past/real life seems set up for an anti-war tirade, but Joe only offers a mild debunking of patriotic cliches, warning the troops to expect mud and cooties but also promising them their own private bonus from the local bank -- a telling promise when real veterans still hoped for early bonuses from the government. His ability to change history is thwarted by an often self-righteous and more often crazy-sounding foreknowledge; appointed head of war industries by President Wilson, he's fired shortly before the armistice for protesting too much against profiteering. Striking even closer to home for Depression audiences, Joe warns people against investing in the stock market, even though he doesn't remember the exact day of the Crash. The story seems to have come full circle when he simultaneously warns his dream wife against playing the market while making essentially the same invitation to his pal, who now has Joe's original place (and wife) in the cigar store, that was made to him. But the dream Depression is even worse than reality for our hero, whose wife had invested their entire savings in the market behind his back and whose bank board is setting him up to take the fall for their shady practices. He dreams all the way to the starting point of the picture -- the Bank Holiday of March 1933, immediately following FDR's inauguration -- and realizes to his horror that he can't predict the future anymore. Dream becomes nightmare at last as he tries to flee the country, is captured by police who form a firing squad and then a lynch mob -- but as you might have guessed, death is but a prelude to awakening and the summing up of lessons learned. In its eccentric fashion, Turn Back the Clock belongs to the same category of retrospective "what went wrong" films as William Wellman's Heroes For Sale and Midnight Mary. It's meant to be more lighthearted than either of those doomy films, and Tracy strives hard to milk humor from the fantastic situation, but the implicit message that foreknowledge could not prevent the economic disaster makes the picture somewhat less funny than the studio claimed. It may well have seemed less funny when it came out than it does now, but on the other hand Pre-Code audiences were a hard-boiled lot, we assume, so maybe they got some gallows humor out of it. Since we're more likely to think of this as a fantasy than as a comedy, we may judge it by a different standard that gives Selwyn credit for creativity, if his was as new an idea as the advertising claimed. Apart from its largely unacknowledged place in the history of fantasy cinema, Turn Back the Clock is an item of real historical interest for its commentary on the Depression and the generation before. It may have more historical than entertainment value, but for those who find this sort of history entertaining this picture is definitely worth a look.

Once again TCM comes through with the original trailer, including most of the Stooges' footage.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

On the Big Screen: BRAVE (2012)

Pixar's new animated feature had a troubled production. It's not the first so troubled, but there's a political or cultural significance this time because Brave was supposed to have been Pixar's first feature directed by a woman. In the end, Brenda Chapman shares the directing credit with Brendan Chapman, while Steve Purcell is recognized as a presumably subordinate co-director. Pixar is our nearest equivalent to a classic Hollywood studio, so collective production is a fact of life. But because of the peculiar publicity Brave's shifts in personnel have received, reviewers seem inclined to look for seams in the finished product. It's assumed that Chapman's vision was compromised, and that assumption puts one strike on the movie before it even begins. While reviewers may think they're doing justice to Chapman, I think they're a little unfair to Brave. The new Pixar is doubly unique for its period setting -- ancient Scotland -- and its intense focus on a mother-daughter relationship. The latter detail gives the film considerable emotional power and archetypal weight. Deeper critics will have a field day with Brave -- and so will pornographic fan artists, I'm afraid.

On another level, Brave is familiar stuff; it's a Disney princess picture, a female coming-of-age story. But this time the heroine resists the coming of age, if that means taking a husband or living up to a queenly model of domesticity. Yet Merida doesn't come across as a daddy's girl. Her father, the king, certainly enjoys her tomboy antics and encourages her from an early age, but she doesn't really go running to him for solace when she argues with her sometimes doting, sometimes daunting mother Eleanor. There's actually a sort of realism here, since Dad was probably off campaigning most of the time. Merida's primary bond is with Eleanor, and that's why their arguments over the daughter's duties to the dynasty are so painful to both of them. Merida precipitates the picture's crisis because she wants her mother to change -- her attitude, that is. There is, without spoiling things (Pixar has been quite coy about the main event of their film), more change than Merida bargained for, and in a way what befalls Eleanor serves as a kind of metaphor for Merida's own coming of age. It stands in for the often-"gross" realization that your parents are sexual creatures just as you come to appreciate what that means. In an ingeniously cartoonish way, Eleanor undergoes a rite of passage on Merida's behalf, with the ironic payoff, given the suspenseful threat of a permanent change, that both mother and daughter are changed -- presumably permanently -- for the better. Whoever's idea that was, it's kinda brilliant.

If you want to see a Pixar picture in a theater, you have to sit through trailers for other people's 3-D animated features. This is instructive. It puts Pixar's achievements, and Brave's in particular in perspective -- in relief, really -- if you sit through a promo for the next Ice Age film or a teaser for the Despicable Me sequel, or even the preview for Disney's own Wreck-it Ralph before the feature presentation. Frankly, the point is usually made by the end of the annual short, like this year's La Luna. Throw Brave into the scales and the comparison is unfair. Working in heroic-fantasy mode, Pixar is in a new place and the results are stupendous. Even the fault-finders acknowledge the achievement of animating Merida and her flaming red hair and I can only second the acclaim. The character animation is terrific nearly across the board, the exceptions for me being Merida's triplet younger brothers, who seem only blandly cute, especially when they go through changes of their own, compared to our fleeting glimpses of a younger Merida. They're a disappointingly generic element of a picture that rarely goes wrong. It may be telling that the one sequence that really falls flat is the film's one real attempt at anachronistic humor, a gag featuring a magical Dark Age version of an automated answering service. If you expect to see predictable corporate-mentality elements in the picture it isn't too hard to find them -- but they don't come close to defining Brave. Maybe it isn't anyone's personal vision in its final form, but it's far from impersonal. Brave may prove but a respite from a Pixar decline, given that next year's feature is the third sequel in four years, but it definitely proves what the studio is capable of in convincing fashion. If this was a troubled production, maybe smooth sailing is overrated.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


If Youssef Chahine's picture reminds me of American Pre-Code cinema, that may be because the 1950s in Egypt were a sort of pre-Code era. There was certainly censorship on the part of the authoritarian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers, but the culture itself, if Chahine represents it fairly, was frank and irreverent, and certainly more secular than Egypt and other Arab countries would be toward the end of the 20th century. Pre-Code Hollywood was brought down by the forces of religion, and the forces of religion in Egypt, presumably, would have brought down the culture that produced Cairo Station if they could have. Leaving politics and religion out of it, the picture reminds me more of Pre-Code than Italian Neorealism, which some might see influencing Chahine given his concern with working-class struggles and his frankness about sexual desire. Cairo Station (also known as The Iron Gate, to literally translate its Arabic title) is a pulpy melodrama linking the fates of disparate characters within the confines of the title train station and its surrounding neighborhood. It has a Pre-Code analogue in the Warner Bros. picture Union Depot (1932), in which Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a hobo suddenly come into money finds himself pitted against a murderous counterfeiter and embroiled in a romance with a showgirl. The stakes are higher in Chahine's picture, a more ambitious commentary on society and sexuality, but the spirit is similar.

Cairo Station follows three principal characters. Abu Sireh (Farid Shawqi) is an ambitious porter trying to organize a union; he needs 50 men to sign up before the government will aid them in negotiating with an oppressive boss. Shawqi is an Anthony Quinn type, big, boisterous and sometimes brutal. He's the jealous lover of Hanouma (Hind Rostom), a wildcat beverage vendor working the station illicitly. She's also the idol of Qinawi (Chahine), a lame misfit news hawker who lives in a shack where he's papered the walls with pin-up art. Chahine directs himself as a Chaneyish pathetic grotesque, playing for sympathy when children stone him but also presenting his character as a dangerous deviant. Sexualized violence threatens Hanouma from both directions, since Abu Sireh isn't above hitting her if he thinks she's cheating on him -- though they can playfully spray each other with soda bottles moments later -- while jealous Qinawi seethes with rage when she laughingly rejects his own pathetic proposals, and takes inspiration from news reports of a serial killer who mutilates women.

Hanouma, Abu Sireh and Qinawi all admire the female form -- each in his or her own fashion.

Over 76 minutes, Chahine efficiently builds up the three leads and assembles an atmospheric picture of the Bab el hadid as a crossroads of classes and cultures. Rock n' roll has already hit Egypt, in the form of Mike and His Skyrockets, who perform an exuberant number for Hanouma to dance to. Traditional religious types look on with scorn. Most women wear modern dress, or else their more traditional costumes wouldn't pass muster by current Islamist standards. Chahine's attitude toward it all is appropriately ambivalent. Has a sensationalist, sexualized popular culture inflamed Qinawi to a dangerous extent, or does his misfit status doom him to pathological obsessions and increasingly violent impulses? An ideologue has to choose one answer; an artist doesn't. It suffices that Qinawi is part of the human landscape and, as Warner Bros. might say, a problem we all must solve.

The Pepsi Generation

Cairo Station builds to a galloping climax as the three storylines intertwine more tightly. Qinawi schemes to kill Hanouma and frame Abu Sireh, which serves the interests of the boss porter who'd like to get the big troublemaker out of the way. Complications involving the mistaken identity of persons and props keep the wheels turning so that Qinawi gets a second chance to get his way. As a maestro of melodrama, Chahine is not above literally putting his heroine on the railroad tracks with an engine approaching, but he pulls it off without cynicism or campiness.  For a viewer familiar with Hollywood cliches, the exotic setting and Chahine's guileless conviction give the cliches new life. The actors -- including Chahine himself, of course -- help put it over with energetic yet grounded performances. While it's probably fair to acknowledge both neorealist and noir influences over the picture, it's a vital, animal spirit akin to Pre-Code that makes Cairo Station a foreign classic that's fun to watch.

I'll send you home with the sounds of Mike and His Skyrockets. Greg Noiz uploaded this clip from Cairo Station to YouTube.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Horror of Brigitte Bardot: NOW PLAYING, JUNE 22-23, 1962

What was it about Bardot? She's the sole attraction at a triple-bill in Florence, AL -- but look at the ad art!

A quick scan of IMDB relates that these three films are all innocuous sex comedies. So what's with the girl with the gun? Or the girl behind bars? What's up with "Deadlier of the Species?" Why does the lineup in Palm Beach look like a natural pairing?

Do you suppose it all has something to do with how sinful she was supposed to be? Of course, Elvis met Frankenstein earlier this year, but didn't they think him sinful once, too?

Can we tap into that primal dread? Let's try by watching a trailer for "That Naughty Girl." This British teaser was uploaded by FootageDirect, complete with self-promotion.

And here's an English-dubbed clip from "The Bride is Much Too Beautiful," aka "Her Bridal Night," uploaded by 57wss.

Oh, the horror!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Now Playing: JUNE 20, 1962.

Look at the cast of this picture opening in Miami. Why have I never heard of this picture?

Answer: Because it's better known to most audiences, and is available from the Warner Archive today, as Convicts 4. Reprieve was the title of the autobiography of ex-con John Resko, upon which the film is based, and the picture previewed under that title when a Variety reviewer saw it in April of this year. Some markets obviously opted to go with the more familiar title. Can't find a trailer online but TCM has several clips and will be showing the picture on July 19. Here's Rod Steiger introducing himself to the new fish.

In Daytona Beach,there's less ambiguity about the title of the new attraction.

Actually, IMDB says the title is A Lust to Kill, and the attraction isn't so new. It came out in 1958.Attack of the Jungle Women first appeared a year later. It seems to have been a semi-documentary picture, to put it generously. SomethingWeird throws some light on the story on their YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee is exposed to high art cinema.

That girl's face is surely meant to be spooky, but it looks like someone threw ink in her face, alas.The film itself is great stuff if you don't mind perplexity. I don't when it looks good.

And speaking of Art, here's what you'd see at a Pittsburgh art house.

The only Naked Island listed at IMDB is a 1960 film by the late Japanese director Kaneto Shindo of Onibaba and Kuroneko fame. No synopsis of that picture mentions a nudist colony, and Shindo's movie isn't supposed to have opened in the U.S. until September, so the film advertised probably isn't that much of an art picture. What it is exactly, I can't say. The only Facts of Love listed at IMDB is a British originally called 29 Acacia Avenue, from the racy days of 1945. It's probably a "daring" choice for this theater because patrons probably left wondering, "How dare they show us this?"

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

DVR Diary: SIMBA (1955)

Recent histories of the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya emphasize the unsavory tactics employed by the British colonial government to keep a restive population under control while suppressing an anti-colonial revolt. In light of the current historical consensus, the 1955 film by Brian Desmond Hurst, best known for the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, can't help but seem, on a first judgmental glance, like a racist rationalization of atrocities against a "savage" enemy. That the Mau Mau fighters committed atrocities of their own isn't disputed, but the Hurst film, and still more the advertising for it, sensationalizes Mau Mau violence in a way that can't help triggering politically correct reflexes today, just as many Hollywood tales of Native American uprisings do. Yet while Simba probably couldn't be expected to come out against British rule, it does take a critical stand against widespread racism among the British in Africa. When one white farmer makes the usual arguments describing Africans as "children," the audience isn't meant to approve. We know better because the film shows us proof to the contrary, the heroic Dr. Karanja (Earl Cameron), who struggles to overcome both the condescension of whites and the pressures of family loyalty to make a stand against the often-senseless Mau Mau violence. Yet the film also tempts us to suspect him of secret sympathy, possibly even leadership of the uprising; the nature of the genre probably makes such suspicion inevitable. That suspicion is part of the personal drama of our white protagonist, Alan Howard (Dirk Bogarde), who comes to Kenya to learn that his brother, one of the farmers, has died at Mau Mau hands -- we see his demise in a pre-credit shock sequence. Despite his own loss, Alan initially seems to disapprove of the white settlers' attitude toward the "Cukes," the native Kikuyu people. But as the conflict intensifies and more whites die, he seems adopt an angry racism of his own. A macho subtext to it may be his jealousy of Karanja's close working relationship with Alan's girlfriend Mary (Virgina McKenna), a volunteer nurse. The tragedy of the picture is that Karanja can only seem to prove his bona fides through sacrifice, even after Alan acts to save his life. If Africans like Karanja are as rare as this picture makes them seem, the future won't be very bright -- Simba was released while the uprising was still in progress -- for the Kikuyu child whose pensive face, in massive close-up, is the last thing we see. A lesser tragedy is that Simba is mostly a predictably pedestrian affair. There's something generic in the worst sense in its violence and its earnestness, and the obvious fact that Bogarde did all his acting in a studio, not in Africa, takes most of the life out of the project. Simba will most likely disappoint both action fans and anyone expecting a more critical or questioning account of British colonization. There's a movie to be made about the Mau Mau uprising and the settler experience in the last generation of British rule -- Kenya became independent in 1963 -- but Simba is only a draft of that picture, and probably too close to events to see them as clearly as posterity would like.

Monday, June 18, 2012


In the year he earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Barefoot Contessa -- it can be assumed that three co-stars of On the Waterfront cancelled each other out -- Edmond O'Brien directed himself in this adaptation of a novel by William P. McGivern, who also provided source material for the late noirs The Big Heat and Odds Against Tomorrow. Howard W. Koch, a co-producer of the picture, shares the directing credit, and I can't tell you who directed what. Which one allows the shadow of a boom mike or crane to crawl across the front of a building in the opening scene? Which one stages a remarkable shootout at a crowded high-school swimming pool between O'Brien and a head-bandaged Claude Akins? Which one shot the scene where Akins gets that early beating, a moment of appalling violence despite the absence of any gore because the camera focuses on O'Brien's expression of desperate rage as he pistol-whips Akins and a cohort for what feels like a full minute, cutting only to show the horrified expressions of other restaurant patrons? By no measure is Shield For Murder a polished film, but it probably shouldn't be. Had O'Brien more subtlety as a director or an actor the picture would lose much of its dark turbulence. He plays Barney Nolan, a plainclothes detective grown tired of his work. He's looking for a big payday and a new life and like a fool he thinks he'll get it when he murders a mob bookie with $25,000 on him and tries to cover it up by calling it a line-of-duty shooting of a fleeing suspect. As if the bookie's boss Packy Reed won't guess where the money went once it turns up missing. As if someone wasn't watching the whole thing happen, even if that guy, in a bit of pulpy melodrama, is a deaf-mute. The old man can still read and write, which the plot requires so our default hero, Barney's stolid protege (an inert John Agar) can discover a written account of the crime. Inevitably, Barney sows the wind and reaps a shitstorm, accidentally killing the mute while attempting to convince him to accept a bribe. Another great scene, whoever directed it, is when Barney pushes the corpse down a flight of stairs to simulate an accident, leaps over the body and bolts down a flight of stairs and out into the night. O'Brien is a house afire throughout, embodying the frustrated fantasies of a beaten-down audience and affirming their futility. I've said before that I consider him the definitive noir actor, noir for me being less about cool than about hapless passion and hopeless persistence. O'Brien is the opposite of cool, but the essence (or part of it) of noir. Like a clown in a slapstick silent, only made up in sweat rather than whiteface, he acts out and lashes out and gets his comeuppance as order inevitably prevails, only it isn't very funny and you don't cry, either. Shield For Murder may be O'Brien's definitive noir performance. Directing himself, it should have been, and the fact of his direction, whatever the actual extent of it, is an assurance that he knew himself as a performer and understood his genre. It's the nearest he comes to being an auteur and he lives up to the opportunity. He should've earned something for that, too.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


The poster for Jacques Deray's police procedural spoils the story -- it shows fugitive Jean-Louis Trintignant in cuffs and in the custody of cop Alain Delon -- but French audiences were presumably quite familiar with the story, anyway. Flic Story (that's the actual French title) was adapted from the memoir of Roger Borniche (Delon), the still-living cop (flic) who took nearly a decade after World War II to track down robber and murderer Emile Buisson (Trintignant). Anyone interested in Borniche's story knew how it turned out, so the primary interest, apart from seeing the two stars in action against each other, had to be in some subtext. In fact, Flic Story feels like a film that requires you to know more about France's modern history in order to appreciate fully. As it is, Deray's film (a Delon co-production) is most likely to remind American viewers of films about the early days of the FBI and its pursuit of archetypal public enemies like John Dillinger. Borniche's pursuit of Buisson is complicated by jurisdictional jealousies between Borniche's "federal police" (known to fans of Inspector Clouseau as the Surete) and the national gendarmerie. The pursuit of Buisson is also an assertion of power, and sometimes an abuse of power. Borniche opposed his own colleagues' resort to beatings of prisoners for information; Delon is the "good cop" here, trusting to his powers of persuasion rather than brute force. The long manhunt also had a political context that Americans can't immediately comprehend. At one point someone reads aloud from L'Humanite, France's communist daily, which demands drastic action against Buisson and cites his continued freedom as proof of the authorities' indifference to working-class life. Later, on a perhaps unrelated note, Buisson explains that a copy of Le Figaro, a conservative daily, enhances one's disguise because no one expects a criminal to read such a "serious" newspaper. I get some of the subtext, but I suspect that there's more to it that I don't get, and that there's an inherent limit to Flic Story's accessibility for non-French audiences.


Context or subtext aside, how does Flic Story work as a period procedural or crime thriller? It's less a genre exercise than a showcase for the two stars. Trintignant, whose star career extends from Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman to the forthcoming Michael Haneke Palme d'Or winner Amour, seems to get the short end here, since Emile Buisson was, on this evidence, no Dillinger. He is simply mean, and Trintignant gets to do little besides glower and shoot people. He does this well and makes Buisson a convincing monster, but was someone of the actor's stature necessary for that? He was probably more necessary as a worthy antagonist for Delon, whose kind of film this was. Literally speaking, Delon has at least five flicks with flic in the title in his filmography. This one isn't one of his all-out action vehicles; it's in the same conscientious mode as his anti-death penalty picture Two Men in Town. His best scene here is his confrontation with a vicious fellow officer who tries to defend his brutal tactics by saying that Borniche would do likewise if Buisson had victimized one of his relatives. Borniche counters by recounting that his actual brother was tortured to death by the Gestapo, thus explaining his opinion of torture. Like Two Men in TownFlic Story ends with an execution, but not before an odd epilogue narrated by Delon about the evolution of Borniche's relationship with his "pal" Buisson during months of interrogation. The point this time seems to be that a hardened criminal's humanization has its limits. Buisson can't repress his desire to torture and kill yet another informant. It isn't exactly a vindication of capital punishment, but it's probably true to the non-fiction source material. Flic Story's fidelity to its source probably limits its potential for genre sensation, though the true story does offer opportunities for plenty of car chases, shootouts and plain old murders. As a period piece it has a drab production design appropriate to a period of privation. Deray stages some scenes well but some have a monotonous soundstage look and nothing is especially memorable visually apart from Trintignant's dead-eyed glower. This film will most likely be memorable for those to whom the true story is most meaningful. The rest of us will find it competent at least, but probably disposable at the end.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

DVR Diary: BLACK HAND (1950)

In Little Italy a man meets in secret with a policeman, risking his life to inform on la mano nera, one of the extortion gangs that terrorized Italian-American communities at the turn of the twentieth century. The man describes two individuals who threatened him, only to see them step out of the closet. The dead body in the closet belongs to the cop who's been killed, and whose uniform is now worn by a gang leader (Marc Lawrence) who watches the informant die by the knife. The Knife was the working title of Richard Thorpe's period thriller for M-G-M, a picture whose reputation has suffered due to the presumed-inappropriate casting of Gene Kelly as the initial victim's son, grown up and returned from a sojourn in Italy to seek revenge. True, Kelly is ethnically inappropriate for the role of Johnny Columbo, but those who think him unfit for the material may never have seen his turn as a psychopath in Robert Siodmak's singular noir musical Christmas Holiday. Kelly can do grim, and he does it nicely here in a tense early scene when he plies a mobbed-up bartender with drinks while pumping him for information and promising a later meeting that can not go well. But when he goes to the man's apartment, the bartender is already dead and a cop is waiting for him. J. Carroll Naish plays the policeman largely based on real-life Italian-American crimefighter Joe Petrosino, and the actor, normally nutty with accents and soon to be reviled, so it's said, by real Italians for his stereotyped performance on the Life With Luigi show, does something surprising here. Surrounded by actors doing Italian accents (Kelly isn't one of them), Naish tones down his own mannerisms, opting for more of a tough-guy New Yorker voice with variable hints of accent. His character tries to steer Columbo from the path of vengeance and toward lawful crimefighting through the patient collection of evidence. Together they try to start a citizen's group to combat the Black Hand, but the gangsters give Kelly a savage beating to make an example of him, breaking a leg (as if to signify that there'll be no dancing this time) and leaving him scarfaced for the rest of the movie.

As Kelly recuperates and studies law, Naish increasingly dominates the picture, stating its editorial viewpoint in a heavyhanded courtroom speech as he tries to convince a terrified witness to identify his tormentors. Luther Davis's screenplay actually attempts a sophisticated analysis of immigrant attitudes, asserting that they don't trust the state to protect them because they had no experience in the old country of government looking out for their interests, but adding that American government circa 1908 wasn't really doing all it could have to protect the poor from predators in their midst. Davis's problem is that he puts all of this in Naish's big speech rather than illustrating it through incidents and dialogue. But the picture is a thriller, not a social critique, so it can survive that shortcoming. Kelly reclaims the initiative after Naish is killed in Palermo just as he mails documents identifying certain New Yorkers (including the Lawrence character, now posing as a concerned citizen) as wanted criminals in Sicily. After the Black Hand kidnaps the baby brother of Columbo's girlfriend to intimidate Columbo into surrendering the documents, our hero realizes that he has time, before the package actually arrives, to track down the kidnappers and rescue the boy -- as long as he and his knife can get frightened or stubborn people to talk....

Kelly isn't very convincing as an Italian-American, unless you accept him as a model of assimilation, and his character is written erratically, careening between the paths of law and revenge, but he still makes an effective thriller hero, while Thorpe makes an effective thriller director. He stages several suspenseful sequences of people stalking each other along noirish streets, as well as one brilliant bit when Kelly is clocked over the head with a full, open pail of beer. The beer splashes over the camera lens, quite effectively representing the hero's slide into unconsciousness. Paul Vogel's cinematography is appropriately shadowy and menacing, while the overall production design makes a nice effort at recreating the slum environment on the M-G-M lot. Black Hand is a well-meaning movie intended to honor Italians' Americanization, but some may detect a whiff of McCarthyism (in advance of the Senator's own emergence as a Red-hunter) in its insistence on the need to testify against enemies in our midst. It should have a place in cinema history as an early and earnest attempt (not counting films from the actual period) to portray gangsterism before crime really got organized.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Now Playing: JUNE 15, 1962

Here are some more of those re-release double-features I mentioned the other day. First is M-G-M's medieval double-bill, just arriving in Salt Lake City.

Pittsburgh's package features everybody's co-star, Tony Curtis.

I think I'd rather be in Pittsburgh this particular weekend. But some of you might prefer the double-bill opening in Spokane.

Note the emphasis on Playboy, which after not quite a decade is already a national institution of a sort. Mr. Teas is the pioneer "nudie cutie" picture and Russ Meyer's first cinematic success. I'm not sure what makes this X-ray spectacle "frenchy," but the label probably tells us something about the convergence of "adult" and "art" cinema in this era. Diane Webber would have to be a long-remembered favorite Playmate; she'd last held that title six years earlier. Presuming that "the uninhibited Nature Girl" identifies Webber rather than the film she's in, the picture may be Mermaids of Tiburon, though Wikipedia mentions another film called This is My Body, a short subject also directed by Meyer.

Speaking of the convergence of art and adult, here's a Japanese picture about a man's "strange desires," opening in Miami.

Machiko Kyo would be known to the cognoscenti for her work in major Japanese pictures starting with Rashomon, as well her appearance alongside Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford in M-G-M's Teahouse of the August Moon. This particular picture was directed by Kon Ichikawa and is also known as The Key. Here's a Japanese trailer for it uploaded by NonoLoves. It has no English subtitles, but you get the idea easily enough that something nasty's going on.

Finally, here's more "strictly adult entertainment" opening in Toledo.

Not to be confused with Tay Garnett's 1947 Alan Ladd vehicle, little seems to be known about this picture. IMDB has neither a synopsis nor a plot summary for it. The women who are "not women" turn out to be migrant farm workers in California subject to sexual abuse from the big guy in the ad. Dean Fredericks, the male lead, played the comic-strip hero Steve Canyon on TV; playing the villain here was clearly a change of pace. Walter Winchell was the narrator of TV's The Untouchables and is probably remembered more for that than for his reign as a powerful gossip columnist. Such is life and such is time.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

JOHN CARTER (2012); or, Who's Afraid of Virginia?

Someday Andrew Stanton's debut as a live-action director will be judged on its merits, apart from a marketing campaign that already lives in infamy. Was Stanton sabotaged by incompetent marketing? Did millions hesitate over seeing the picture depending on whether or not the word "Mars" appeared in the title? It's hard for me to say. The real question, I suppose, is: was a good movie sabotaged and made into a historic flop by bad marketing? But that only begs the question of whether John Carter is a good movie. Some say so now, probably, and more may want to say it later in a spirit of revisionism. But before revisionism becomes an end unto itself, I have to say that Stanton's Carter wasn't very good. It is nowhere near as bad as Paul W.S. Anderson's Three Musketeers (though both films share some physical uncertainty about a falling body's effect on a small boat), and it will look like an enduring classic compared to such recent stuff as Immortals or Red Riding Hood. But if not mediocre, Carter is also a hopelessly mixed bag. At moments, and most often when the focus in on Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and his Tharks, Stanton taps successfully into the sword-and-sorcery (make that sword-and-super-science) vein he sought for throughout. I don't mean to overrate the Tharks -- such actors as Dafoe and Samantha Morton do strong voice work and obviously contribute something to the motion capture animation, but in a mass they tend to look alike in a monotonous, video-gamey way -- but the film is almost always duller whenever Tharks are absent, while it's at its best when Carter (aka "Virginia" thanks to an initial misunderstanding of English) interacts with the green warriors, their rebellious daughters, their goofy pets, etc. That tells you something about the virtues of cinematic barbarism, perhaps, but it also says something damning about the actors playing in their own skins.

Most damned (and double-damned this year as a star of Battleship) is Taylor Kitsch in the title role. He fails to convince as a 19th century fighting man, and while I'm by now prepared to take anachronistic acting for granted, he fails even by diminished standards. To be fair, he's stuck with a badly written character in the predictable yet still peculiar manner that passes too often for cinematic heroism these days. This film's John Carter is another of those reluctant, damaged, sullen heroes who want to be left alone most of the time. The film is coy about the source of his hurt until the big reveal comes in the middle of one of Stanton's best fight scenes, which ceases to be one. Turns out that Stanton's Carter lost his wife and child in a fire during the Civil War or thereabouts, and his remembered grief fuels a rage unleashed against savage pursuers. We learn this as Stanton intercuts between the fighting, with Carter leaping and slashing as the lesser gravity of Mars allows, and flashbacks to Carter burying his family. He often "rhymes" the shots in a way that'd look clever in a comic book but comes out crassly mawkish here. It's the most mismatched montage since Steven Spielberg's Munich, when Eric Bana's character visualized the Munich Olympic massacre while making love to his wife. And from what I'm told, there's no basis in Edgar Rice Burroughs for such a grisly flashback. Modern writers, however, want their heroes damaged or impaired in some way that must be overcome before the characters can actually be heroes. So Carter must overcome a grief-grounded fear of commitment before he takes a definite stand. If he just did the right thing and enjoyed doing it, I suppose we'd suspect his attitude or his motives for one reason or another.

On the other hand, maybe Stanton had to stress Carter's internal struggle because he knew he was stuck with some supremely boring villains. As the main aggressor on Barsoom, Dominic West has practically no personality. The film explains this somewhat by making him a puppet of the more advanced and wickedly manipulative Therns, but then the Therns themselves (led by Mark Strong) are boring. This crew makes Mickey Rourke in Immortals look Shakespearean in his grandiosity. More than Kitsch, they drag the movie down because neither they nor, admittedly, the good-guy humans can keep us interested in the conflict between Zodanga and Helium. Had the Tharks cleared the floor of both factions, then I could cheer. The collective vapidity of the Red Martians (with the arguable exception of Lynn Collins's warrior-professor-princess Dejah Thoris) ultimately kills a project that could have survived a sullen Kitsch and puts an often-impressive visual production to notorious waste. The creators profess to love the Burroughs stories, but they didn't trust the original material to win over movie audiences -- or else they didn't trust audiences to appreciate the material on its own terms. The consequences of their distrust are more infuriating than the other debacles I've mentioned for comparison's sake, because John Carter comes so close so often to being a good film, yet ultimately refuses to become one.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Now Playing: JUNE 13, 1962

To be honest, I haven't really been giving readers an accurate picture of moviegoers' options fifty years ago. There's an entire category of pictures that I've excluded to date: re-releases. Before VHS and DVD, if a studio hadn't sold a picture to television they always had the option of re-releasing it, usually as part of a double-bill. Exhibitors hoped to bring in people who remembered a picture fondly from their first viewing but hadn't seen it since, as well as people for whom the old movie was practically new, since there was no place else to see it but the local movie house. Sometimes an old movie would come out under a new name, though it would have been impossible to pitch "Red Hot Wheels," the re-release title of the 1950 Clark Gable picture To Please a Lady, as a new show, since Gable had died in 1960. Some re-release packages keep turning up all over the country throughout the year. Later this week you'll see some artwork for M-G-M's medieval-themed pairing of Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1954). In June, Universal started sending various packages of Abbott & Costello, Francis the Talking Mule, and Ma & Pa Kettle movies around the country under a general "Corn" rubric -- thinking to draw whom, exactly? But for now, to give you an idea of what I'm writing about, here's a re-release double bill opening this day in Miami.

These are Jerry's first two solo films, from 1957. His most recent release, The Errand Boy, had played first-run houses last Christmastime. Meanwhile, in Daytona Beach, the following may only have seemed like an old movie. It was, in fact, spanking new.

That disclaimer in the lower right is one of the strangest I've seen -- someone's idea of absurdity, I suppose. But do you wonder why this flopped? Then look at this clip in which the boys grasp at relevance by bringing Peter Sellers in for a cameo. Rolko52 uploaded it.

Keeping up the comedy theme, we move to Milwaukee for a French farce.

In some markets, Philippe de Broca has become a bankable name -- or so exhibitors hope -- and that's before the pictures he'd eventually be best known for reach the country. At the very least, this ad tells us that Love Game went over well in the U.S.

Continuing in an international vein, here's a Mexican movie imported by the legendary K. Gordon Murray, here proving that he handled more than horror movies and wrestling pictures. Of course, you can't tell from this Pittsburgh ad that it's a Mexican picture, but what you don't know...

The second feature is a 1953 Italian comedy co-directed by Mario Monicelli, of Big Deal on Madonna Street, and Steno, of Flatfoot in Hong Kong.

Back to red-blooded American trash, here's a TV parody opening in Toledo from the director of The Thing with Two Heads.

This is specifically a parody of the show Surfside 6, but since I've never seen that I can't say much about this. But Something Weird has the dope on this picture, and they'll show it to you -- for a price.

Finally, back to Milwaukee for a change of pace -- WAR! With a special live attraction...

Darin would be performing in town that weekend.Some of the advertising for this picture, which went head-to-head with Merrill's Marauders in many markets, stressed the number of TV stars in the cast. Note the emphasis on Bob Newhart, however, who was big off comedy albums and stand-up in this period. Just who you want in a Don Siegel war movie, but maybe the trailer will work for you. Bobbyfan 64 uploaded it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


During the trailer for Kazuhiko Yamaguchi's film, Meiko Kaji addresses herself directly to Toei Studio fans, greeting them for the first time and asking for their approval as stars sometimes did in these previews. It's hard to remind oneself that Kaji got her start elsewhere; you'd think that had she never existed, Toei would have to invent her. The studio that specialized in tough yet stylish crime movies during the 1970s seems like the natural home for Japan's greatest female crime-action star of the decade, yet Wandering Ginza Butterfly was her Toei debut. I often describe Toei as Japan's equivalent of Warner Bros. in the 1930s in the production of fast-moving, zeitgeist-grasping crime pictures, and this is a Toei production that often feels like an actual Warner Bros. movie in its mix of violence and sentimentality.

Kaji plays Nami, an ex-con who had to get tough (though not Scorpion-tough!) with her cellmates every so often but now wants a fresh start back in the hood -- the Ginza district of Tokyo. She befriends a low-level yakuza, Ryuji (Tsunehiko Watase), who specializes in recruiting "hostesses" for the Ginza's hundreds of dance halls and other places of ill repute. Ryuji dresses like a character out of Guys and Dolls most of the time, lending a kind of mythic veneer to the usual Toei grit, this time colorfully shot against the Ginza's neon skyline for added production value. But it's Nami who's going to wear the pants -- except when she chooses more traditional garb -- in this partnership. She's the one with the will to make construction workers pay their debts. No money? She'll just take your truck away. Debt collection is one of her many skills; another is pool hustling, which comes in handy later in the picture. For now, as she earns a living, she takes a strange interest in a small family: a single mother and her son. We learn gradually that the mother had appealed with the prison authorities for Nami's early release. This benevolent gesture stuns and shames Nami since, as we learn later, she'd been jailed, back when she rode with a female biker gang, for killing the woman's husband. Making a (sort of) honest living and helping provide for the dead man's family is her stab (to foreshadow a bit) at redemption.
Past and Present

Ironically, while the woman with the most cause to hate her doesn't, Nami's fellow hostesses turn their noses up at her when they learn that she's an ex-con. It seems like they won't let Nami play any hostess games, but when the local bad guy tries to muscle in on her employer, it's up to Nami to defend the place. Her weapon of choice is a pool cue in a game of three-cushion billiards against the bad guy's resident hustler, a drug addict who luridly loses his composure in mid-match, but recovers to force Nami to make a big comeback in order to win and save the brothel. A poster of Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson presides over the contest, but Yamaguchi is no Robert Rossen. Instead, apart from the opponent's withdrawal episode, the director films this showdown like Billiards for Morons, with voiceovers from Kaji recording such subtle insights as "I need one more point to win." At the risk of spoiling things, I'll inform you that our heroine does win, but it's not much of a spoiler since the bad guy decides that he's going to take over the brothel anyway, so there.
We've got trouble, right here in Ginza City, with a capital T that rhymes with B,
and that stands for Butterfly!

The local good-guy yakuza steps in at this point, trumping the bad guy by announcing his marriage to the madam and his protection of her business. But the bad guy yakuza still won't play fair and has the good-guy yakuza killed in the street. All right, then; that's all Nami can stands, and she can't stands no more. It's time for a different kind of game, the kind you play with swords with a kimono for a uniform and your own song for entrance music. Kaji takes a stroll through the rain like Cagney in The Public Enemy as her song plays on the soundtrack. Only in Public Enemy William Wellman left Cagney's wrath to the imagination, with some help from shots and groans of agony. At Toei we follow the avenger inside -- and it turns out that Ryuji's there already to introduce her to her victims. They practically part the curtain for the moment we've all been waiting for....
She's singing in the rain, but her lips don't move.
Nami's sword does all the talking.

But despite the last-reel effort to live up to Toei standards, Ginza Butterfly is relatively lighthearted affair, despite a mildly downbeat finish, while the sequel, in which Sonny Chiba co-stars, is more blatantly comic from the evidence of the trailer on the Synapse DVD. Maybe "lightheated" doesn't make my point as well as "corny" would. The movie isn't without a bare minimum of Seventies sleaze, but it isn't hardcore Toei by any stretch of the imagination. As a Kaji vehicle it doesn't compare to the Scorpion or Lady Snowblood movies, but the actress is quite likable in a role pitched on a more human or humane level than her most iconic parts, and on this first outing the humor isn't obnoxiously over the top. It's mild for a Toei picture, but unless you must have a bloodbath every ten minutes, not just the last ten, its overall amiable attitude may just win you over.

Here's that trailer I mentioned; dijedil uploaded it to YouTube.