Friday, August 31, 2012

YES, MADAM (In the Line of Duty 2: the Super-Cops, 1985)

As far as most Americans are concerned, the history of martial arts cinema consists of whatever happened before Bruce Lee, then Bruce Lee and endless badly dubbed imitators fighting each other over their masters' deaths, followed by Jackie Chan's more comical, stunt-oriented movies, and finally today's CGI-enhanced fantasies. Chan didn't break into the U.S. mainstream until the mid-1990s, but a decade earlier Hong Kong action films reflected his influence. What we were taught to admire about Jackie Chan was that he did his own stunts, but on the evidence of Corey Yuen's film the stunts themselves mattered more to some directors, if not to audiences, than who actually did them. I hadn't watched a film like Yes Madam in a while; most of my recent martial-arts viewing had been more oldschool. I had been used to an evolution over the 1970s toward a virtuoso standard of martial-arts skills reflected in the movies' increasing emphasis on training sequences, however fantastic those may have been. Watching Yuen's movie after watching a lot of Seventies kung fu is like watching a modern musical after a diet of Fred Astaire. Astaire wanted to show off his skills by having directors showcase his full body in long takes, while in later musicals directors often assert themselves by conspicuously editing dance numbers. The fight scenes in Yes, Madam are all about stunts and editing, but there's more point to the practice than there is in many modern musicals. The individual shots could be compared to the panels of a comic book. Every set-up is framed for the maximum impact from a short burst of action. Individual blows are more devastating than in oldschool fight scenes, as wirework often sends a stuntman flying after a powerful kick from one of the heroines. Slow-motion is employed liberally to emphasize the reality of certain stunts. As a whole the fight scenes are more dynamic and more cartoonish than what you might have seen a decade earlier, and that seems to fit the cartoonishness of the picture as a whole.

Michelle Yeoh is armed and dangerous

Yes, Madam is a cop movie of confusing lineage -- billed on screen as a sequel to a picture that, according to IMDB, actually came out a year later, the two having in common Michelle Yeoh, then still using her original nom d'ecran of Michelle Khan, in early starring roles. What struck me about this particular cop movie is how like a Lethal Weapon picture it was in its overblown goofiness and rambling narrative. It's more like a later Lethal Weapon to the extent that comedy relief characters are allowed to try to steal the movie. A viewer expecting an action-chick apotheosis, since the film teams Yeoh with American karate champion and future B-movie star Cynthia Rothrock, will be surprised and probably appalled to learn that they have no more, really, than an equal share of screen time with three male criminal buffoons, each named after some popular pain reliever: Strepsil, Aspirin and Panadol. They're thieves and counterfeiters, constantly whining at and bickering with each other while earning money to subsidize the retirement of their old master (powder-haired co-producer Sammo Hung). They accidentally acquire frames of microfilm that could expose a vast criminal network after an old Scotland Yard mentor of Inspector Ng (Yeoh/Khan) is killed by gangsters in a hotel they intend to rob. In the confusion the comedy crooks make off with the film inside the victim's passport book -- the real prize as far as they're concerned.

Ng wants to track down her mentor's killers, with the aggressive assistance of British detective Morris (Rothrock), while the killers are trying to find the microfilm that the crooks don't realize they even have until relatively late in the proceedings. Add an angry fugitive who buys the doctored passport from the crooks only to have a shitstorm of hard-kicking justice descend upon him, a pool hustler and his personal band of enforcers, etc. etc. and you have a nice recipe for an hour and a half of energetically stupid mayhem.

This is one of those 1980s movies that may leave viewers of a certain age struggling to remind themselves that they actually lived through that decade. Did people thirty years or so ago really dress like that? I suppose it's progressive that Yeoh and Rothrock are hardly glamorized here, but it's one thing not to be treated as sex objects, another to be subjected to the garish baggy costumes they wear in Yes, Madam. Sometimes they look like children on a playdate, or at least like their mommies had dressed them, but there's a point to it. For one thing, those outfits probably provide the ladies some much needed padding for the falls they'll have to take. And while there are plenty of shots that demonstrate that Yeoh, with her dance training, and Rothrock, with her non-combat karate training, are convincing cinematic fighters, Yuen's characters need to make some amazing acrobatic leaps and when they do, the shots are from far enough away for us to assume that these are men, not women, doing the stunts in those conveniently loose, mannish garments. Needless to say, this is where rapid-fire editing comes in very handy.

Some women's skills probably can't be duplicated by stuntmen

Like many a Hollywood cop film of the era, Yes, Madam features mismatched partners. While the thrill of the picture is the idea of two women beating up all the men, the women themselves never really become buddies. Whether a political comment is being made in then British-ruled Hong Kong, or a cultural comment is made on western cop movies, Yuen's movie makes a pointed distinction between Ng's subtler methods with prisoners and Morris's hard-charging brutality. The Brit is more inclined to beat information out of a suspect, but the Chinese does not act differently out of squeamishness. "If that worked, we'd do it," Ng tells Morris after pulling her off a hapless prisoner. Ng is more likely to let a perp escape custody in the expectation that he'll lead her to the next level of the criminal food chain. She's usually right, of course, though the chaotic scheming of the three comics complicates things. It ultimately compromises the picture until Yes Madam is more about the crooks than the cops, closing not with the superwomen sharing a triumph, but with one of the crooks going vigilante on a cackling master criminal. It's an abrupt wrap-up very unlike an American cop movie, and why Yuen and his writers should want to wrap it that way is probably what makes the picture most foreign. The Chinese may not have the same idea of "comedy relief" as Anglophones do, so it may not have jolted them so much to see a film close with a buffoon turned bloody avenger. On the other hand, since this film's master criminal is shielded by the legal system from the fate he presumably deserves yet can't receive at the hands of the policewomen. Even Morris won't shoot a man in cold blood, but a pathetic petty criminal, a man who was a punching bag for most of the picture, pretty well can. It's still an odd way to end the movie, but it may seem less odd to its original audience for reasons I don't fully get yet. But as long as you feel that Yes, Madam has given you the quota of kinetic cinema you were looking for -- and you probably will -- you can let the ending go.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Now Playing: AUG 29, 1962

It's still slow as far as major national releases are concerned this week; no big Labor Day weekend pictures as far as I can see. Instead, some old friends are coming back out of the woodwork. In particular, The Head invades Pennsylvania this week. First, the German import headlines a triple-bill in Jeannette.

At the same time, the picture opens wide in the Pittsburgh area. Here's a full broadsheet page to give you an idea of the size of the ad buy for a movie long since relegated to the public domain and discount box sets.


Some pictures have been rolling out gradually over the past month. Let's catch up as each arrives in a new territory. Probably the most prestigious, or at least the best regarded today, opens in Reading PA.

Here's the newest attraction in Youngstown OH.

I saw this one advertised in another city as "Big Rock vs. Big Daddy." Most exhibitors weren't as clever. But here's a couple that may strike us more as summer fare. First, a Milwaukee opening.

Now, Tarzan goes to St. Joseph MO:

Jock Mahoney had been the bad guy in the previous Tarzan picture, doing the job for Gordon Scott. Both that and this are good latter-day Tarzans with intelligent ape-men and decent action. But the ad does lay it on just a little thick. I'm just not sure whether the presence of an elephant boy in the picture requires an exclamation point. Maybe people missed Sabu.

Back to Milwaukee for a moment for some possibly more mature fare. The title probably meant less than it might now, though.

The Rock in question is Gibraltar, not Alcatraz, where Burt Lancaster currently holds court.I guess this really is the American premiere, since IMDB doesn't have this one opening in New York until September 24. You do get truth in advertising sometimes -- or so I'll assume until someone shows me proof that Operation Snatch played earlier in this country.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dracula, Direct from Hollywood: NOW PLAYING: Aug. 28, 1962

Just one item tonight, but it's a doozy: a Tuesday spookshow in Schenectady NY.

With all this going on, do you suppose they ran House on Haunted Hill, to use the correct title, in Emergo? If they have Dracula doing the bat thing, then why the hell not?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Hideo Gosha's VIOLENT STREETS (1974)

The Toei studio promoted Hideo Gosha's picture as an all-star "new style" yakuza picture, which makes you wonder whether Japanese audiences were getting tired of Kenji Fukasaku's style of yakuza picture while his classic "Battles Without Honor or Humanity" series was still in progress. Gosha's movie definitely is different. While Fukasaku aims at chaotic immediacy by filming violence with a handheld camera, Gosha takes a more carefully pictorial approach. His stages many of his violent set pieces in bizarre settings, most notably a junkyard amid a pile of mannequins and twice over in a chicken coop. In contrast with many of Fukasaku's films, Gosha's makes no pretense, as far as I could tell, of recounting actual events. Gone is the narration that opens and closes many Fukasaku flicks, as well as the captions identifying characters and their places in the yakuza hierarchy. In that respect, Gosha achieves a different kind of immediacy, but his real goal seems to be a greater intimacy, albeit in the more salacious sense of the word.

I don't know if poultry's a big part of the menu at Noboru Ando's place, but I wouldn't recommend the special he serves up to the unhappy patron below.

The star is Noboru Ando, who as a former yakuza presumably had the same sort of credibility that gangsta rappers often claim for themselves. Authenticity gave Ando an advantage as an actor; he rarely had to prove he was tough with the sort of bluster other actors employed. With his almost sleepy eyes and laid-back demeanor -- he reminds me just a little of Jet Li -- he's often the calm center of a storm. That's especially true here, where the storm breaks around him without his character knowing it. He plays Egawa, once boss of his own family who's been eased into retirement with the usual consolation prize of a niteclub. His is the Madrid, and the Spanish gimmick, including flamenco music in the floorshow, is another way for Gosha to individualize his film. The Madrid is a hangout for his former gang, many of whom feel like they were kicked to the curb by the reigning yakuza group, which has its tentacles in many areas of business, including the entertainment industry. Without consulting their own boss, despite their constant protestations of loyalty, these guys try to muscle in on the entertainment side, kidnapping a popular young TV singer and demanding 100,000,000 yen ransom. They get the money but leave a corpse behind; one of the gang accidentally strangled the girl while trying to rape her.

This goes down just as the local yakuza, who control Tokyo's Ginza district, face a growing challenge from the Western Japan Association, which dominates most of the rest of the country. The locals initially assume that the outside interlopers are behind the kidnapping and the escalating gang war brings in some exotic players, including a cross-dressing hit-person with a razor fetish who performs in live sex shows on the side. As the major parties jostle for position, the Madrid club looks more and more like a useful pawn. The people who gave it to Egawa want it back, claiming that they retain the original lease. With his position under siege and his old cronies getting slaughtered, Egawa finally has to take the fight to the enemy.

Violent Streets' cross-dressing killer is a kind of mannequin him/herself.
Is Gosha making a point about disposable humanity?

Toei also promoted Violent Streets as a "Big 4" film featuring many of the studio's top yakuza stars. Along with Ando, the film features Akira Kobayashi as a friend of Egawa's who grows steadily disillusioned with the business, Tetsuro Tanba as the boss of the Western Alliance, and Fukasaku's main star Bunta Sugawara in a cameo role. Sugawara is hilarious as a gun smuggler who supplies Egawa with ordinance and insists on accompanying him on a raid on a rival niteclub. I've never seen Bunta as mellow, or practically stoned, as he is in his brief turn here. He has headphones on throughout and spends most of the attack lounging in the back seat of Egawa's car drinking, chewing on a sandwich and listening to whatever, stirring occasionally to shoot someone. In mid-getaway he asks to be let out on some nondescript street and makes his exit with boombox in tow, living in his own world. It's a wonderful comedy-relief bit that doesn't compromise the grim edge of the main story.

Ando goes on the attack while Bunta looks on.

Gosha's Ginza is full of eccentrics and dysfunctional people. Egawa has to deal with an alcoholic hostess and sometime lover while pining for another woman, which only provokes the hostess's jealousy. Our hero seems like the nearest thing to a well-adjusted person in his semi-retirement, but any vision of stability he has is certainly doomed. He remains a man of violence, as Gosha establishes in the very first scene when he roughs up some rowdy customers. Had he been different, he might have sold out early and escaped the fate he ends up choosing for himself. Yakuza films are often bleak affairs, especially after Fukasaku replaced a myth of underworld chivalry with a more cynical vision. Violent Streets isn't very different in that respect. In the long run, what distinguishes it isn't Gosha's grotesque set pieces as much as the convincing performances from Ando and the rest of the cast. They're not necessarily better for Gosha than they were for Fukasaku -- Sugawara in particular is definitely at his best with the latter director -- but they're somehow liberated here by not having to pretend that they're re-enacting history. Fukasaku's yakuza films are great movies, but Violent Streets arguably comes closer to pure cinema and is definitely a more self-conscious work of violent art.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

PRE-CODE PARADE: Kay Francis, medical pioneer

Kay Francis was probably the closest thing Warner Bros. had to a queen of the lot in the Pre-Code era, yet she doesn't come readily to mind, I suspect, when anyone thinks of the studio and its characteristic output. There's the Warner Bros that lives forever in the cinephile imagination, the realm of gangsters and gold-diggers, but then there's the studio of Mr. George Arliss's biopics and Kay Francis's romances. Many of the familiar directors and much of the familiar stock company worked with Francis, but she herself has made less of a mark, eclipsed on one side by part-time Warners star Barbara Stanwyck and on the other by slowly-but-surely rising Bette Davis. Francis's reputation, it seems, is that of a clotheshorse and a glamourpuss. She seems to lack an edge. Yet Warner's tried to make her a studio type by casting her as a woman of power or authority, an ultramodern progressive professional. One of the privileges of being queen of the lot is that while lesser actresses played nurses, Francis played doctors.

In fact, Warner's touted Lloyd Bacon's MARY STEVENS M.D. (1933) as the first movie to portray a woman doctor. Bacon's film shows a world still uncertain about women's competence in the medical profession. It opens with Francis as a uniformed intern arriving at a tenement to deliver a baby. The man of the house is a stereotypically voluble Italian man who demands that a male doctor be sent and threatens young Stevens with a butcher knife should she fail to deliver. Mary Stevens is all business and goes about her work unfazed by the Italian's bluster and threats. When she shows him his healthy twins, the tough guy promptly faints. Soon enough, Dr. Stevens is hanging her shingle and sharing a practice with her classmate Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot). Perhaps ironically, it's the male doctor who sleeps his way to success, marrying a political boss's daughter and landing a lucrative post with the State Compensation Board, where he gets away with embezzlement, while Mary struggles to establish credibility with the public. When success goes to Don's head, along with too many drinks at a road house, Mary has to bail him out in the operating room -- after which she ends their partnership with a disgust that does little to disguise her persistent longing for her colleague. When Don has to lay low after a political scandal breaks around him, he coincidentally ends up on the same train as Mary, and things develop from there. To be specific, Mary gets pregnant but doesn't tell Don, who's struggling to get free of the boss's daughter. The girl's willing, but the boss has dealt with too much scandal already and wants the unhappy couple to wait another year. Also averse to scandal, Mary sails for Europe with her nurse/BFF (Glenda Farrell playing "Glenda") to have her baby incognito and subsequently adopt it.

Once Don, still ignorant of his fatherhood, finally gets his divorce, Mary, Glenda and Baby sail back across the Atlantic, only to have polio break out on board. Mary treats the daughters of a troubled young mother (Una O'Connor!) but leaves her purse in their steerage compartment. In an inexorable chain of events, the infected purse, and a pen gnawed on by one of the infected girls, makes it back to Mary's cabin, where her own baby seals its fate by sucking on the tainted pen. It was exceptional even by Pre-Code standards for Mary to blithely announce an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and that probably made this retribution inevitable, though it seems rough to have the baby suffer for the parents' "sins." The film hints that Mary, too, will pay as she grows more suicidal in her grief, but Bacon closes with a vindication of the heroine's career. Neither Don's nor Glenda's entreaties will snap her out of her stupor, and she's about to jump from a high window when her doorman barges in begging for help -- his child is choking to death. Mary finally snaps back to life and saves the child by extracting an obstruction with a hairpin. "I wonder what a male doctor would have used?" she wonders aloud.

The best proof of Mary Stevens's popularity was Francis's resumption of a medical role in William Keighley's DR. MONICA (1934).This one barely qualifies as a feature at 54 minutes, and the studio had to struggle with more assertive Code enforcers to get anything released. Short in length, Monica isn't short on Pre-Code edginess in its portrayal of a peculiar love triangle. Monica Braden, like Mary Stevens, is an obstetrician, but Braden is considered one of the world's experts in the field and lives in a more exalted social circle. Married to an author (a self-effacing Warren William), her female friends are women of accomplishment. Anna (Verree Teesdale) is an architect and Mary (Jean Muir) is an aviatrix. Mary is also having an affair with Mr. Braden. Since Braden still seems quite affectionate toward Monica, the affair seems to have everything to do with Monica's inability to have a child. Mary doesn't share that handicap. If you're keeping score, at this point Monica doesn't know about the affair and takes the pregnant Mary into her care, sharply rebuffing a censored yet pretty obvious appeal from Mary for an abortion. That subject was raised briefly in Mary Stevens as well, when Mary tells Glenda that after telling a patient to "be a good sport" and have her baby she could hardly refuse to carry her own to term. (Pre-Code Code: when a girl in trouble asks a doctor for "help," it usually means abortion). Monica's Mary is tempted to end her pregnancy because Braden, travelling abroad and pining for Monica, has given her the cold shoulder. Instead, Mary and Monica form a strong emotional bond until the doctor discovers her patient trying to place a call to Braden and deduces the reason easily enough. When Mary goes into labor, Monica initially refuses to attend her, warning that she might kill the girl, but her training kicks in after Anna slaps some sense into her, and she delivers the baby. Key Francis knows everything about birthing babies as far as Warner Bros. is concerned.

Afterward, Monica remains aloof from Mary, while Mary remains aloof from the baby she still doesn't want. Mary misses Monica more than the baby -- "Why don't you ever kiss me?" she asks the doctor plaintively, not knowing what she knows, before Monica makes her company conditional upon Mary accepting the child. Finally, Braden returns and he and Monica go on what she considers a kind of anti-honeymoon -- two final weeks of happy companionship before she dumps him to join an advanced medical facility in Vienna. At this point, Braden still knows nothing about a baby, and William plays drastically against his Pre-Code type in his cluelessness throughout the picture. Now Mary is horrified by the idea of the Bradens breaking up because of her, having been told by Anna that Monica knows everything, and you could be excused for thinking that the flier was in love with both Bradens. But it's renunciation time for Mary, who leaves her baby behind with a note for Monica, climbs into her plane and jokes with a mechanic that she's off for Paris on two hours worth of gas. She's last seen flying out to sea -- shades of Christopher Strong! With Braden still none the wiser, Monica presents the baby as a surprise adoption, putting her career temporarily on hold and reclaiming her obtuse spouse once and for all. This is all very psychologically suspect and it's hard to decide who's ultimately more reprehensible: the husband whose casual dalliance resulted in a woman's suicide or the wife who apparently condones the suicide while claiming the fruit of the dalliance as her own. Neither seems very troubled by Mary's apparent demise, but the film itself appears to endorse their attitude by suggesting that Mary has done the right thing. We tell ourselves sometimes that Pre-Code filmmakers were more like us in their frankness and liberation than the generation that came after them, but moments like the climax of Dr. Monica force us to question that assumption.

In both films, Francis is credible as a professional woman, and both happily avoide forcing a choice between career and family. Mary Stevens will finally marry Don and the doctors will practice together, while nothing suggests that Monica Braden will give up her more advanced work despite her emotional ordeal. While Dr. Monica may imply a link between Dr. Braden's careerism and her barrenness, and Monica calls herself a "machine" when in doctor mode, that may reflect the attitude of the original Polish play (itself written by a woman) rather than the attitude of the Warner Bros. studio. Mary Stevens's fertility, of course, allows for no such insinuations. Francis is fine in both pictures, but hers is a more subdued personality, definitely less aggressive, than her studio peers, and that may be the main reason why her films were less memorable in the decades between their original appearances and their more ready availability today through Turner Classic Movies and the Warner Archive. She deserves a fresh look and these films deserve attention for their feminist ambitions, which make them as close to politically correct, arguably, as an Pre-Code picture will get. comes through again with the original trailer for Mary Stevens M.D.

And the trailer for that "most beautiful" yet "delicate" love story, Dr. Monica.


Always a weaker rival to Turner Classic Movies, the Fox Movie Channel more or less gave up on the competition earlier this year when it began showing contemporary movies with commercials in prime time. From early morning to mid-afternoon, however, FMC still shows the old stuff commercial-free, and if anything they've delved deeper into their library than before to broadcast obscure oddities. For example, here's a Filipino-directed crime melodrama shot in India and starring one of the subcontinent's biggest stars, the late Dev Anand, alongside future blaxploitation actor and S.W.A.T. star Rod Perry, who sings the picture's title song. Directed by Lamberto V. Avellana, The Evil Within's first reel promises more craziness than the picture ultimately delivers. We follow a stocky fellow known only as "The Fat Man" on a series of fatal rounds. Without preliminaries, we open with him stabbing someone. In short order he leaves a trail of bloody bodies in his wake. He may be an implausible fighter but he's a charismatic attacker, often screaming before he strikes. If he's the antagonist we may be on to something -- but eight minutes into the picture, he's shot in the back and killed in perfunctory manner by the minions of Hakim, a more ordinary figure who now settles into the primary villain role. The Fat Man was a Syndicate enforcer and his death signals a power play for control of the opium racket. That brings in Anand (playing "Dev") and Perry (playing "Rob"), the latter having survived a rare non-fatal encounter with the Fat Man during that brief, glorious rampage. One powerful clan runs the drug trade, buying the opium from the mountain tribes and shipping it out to the wider world. The clan is riven by family feuds, and for a while it looks like our heroes will play the Red Harvest game of playing criminals against each other. The crooks need little prodding in this direction, their rivalries ultimately complicated by a lesbian love triangle that leaves Dev himself in a shotgun-toting rage by the end of the show.

It's hard to keep track of the villains in this one; just as Hakim abruptly eliminated the Fat Man, so he, too, is dispatched with little ceremony midway through the picture, after cajoling Dev's girlfriend of the moment into betraying him by promising her money so she can go to England. Without a strong core villain or a coherent menace of some kind it's hard to hold interest in this sort of story, and it doesn't help that Avellana brings very little energy to the action. In his defense, Fox Movie ran the movie "formatted to fit your screen," possibly subverting his compositions, but the story itself moves sluggishly. If this English-language picture was intended to put Anand over globally, it didn't work. The actor was fluent in English, earning a college degree in English lit, but his delivery is blandly urbane, almost more philosophical than witty, and he was probably too old for his action-romance role by this time. This film is Perry's on-screen debut and he provides little more than -- excuse the expression -- color. His presence may have made the film more marketable during the Seventies, but IMDB doesn't indicate if the film was ever released in American theaters. One interesting aspect of his role is the throwaway acknowledgment that Rob is a Muslim; challenged to swear an oath on his presumed Christian faith, he tells a tribesman that he's of the faith that "looks to the desert."  More colorful are the locations used, especially the luxurious fortress where the film's final act takes place, but Avellana never manages to make the action live up to the setting. All the materials are here for an exotic, eccentric spectacle, and it isn't hard to envision a Bollywood director, a blaxploitation specialist or any number of other Filipino filmmakers making more of it than this crew does. Still, the fact that The Evil Within played on American cable television is remarkable, and it reminds us that Fox Movie Channel is still worth watching -- or at least its schedule is, on the chance of discovering something as extraordinary as it is obscure.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Here's a Shakespeare play not often filmed, perhaps because it's hard to make its hero likable. Caius Marcius was a Roman soldier from the early days of the Republic who earned the name Coriolanus after taking the Volscian town of Corioli nearly single-handed. A patrician, he ran for consul but ended up banished from Rome after he was accused of conspiring against the constitution, more or less. He joined forces with the Volscians and led them to victories but stopped short of taking Rome after appeals for mercy from his wife and mother. According to the legend, the Volscians then killed him. Shakespeare portrays him as a man perhaps fit for leadership, but not for politics. A reluctant campaigner, he abhors actually having to "beg" for votes from the common people and is embarrassed by the idea of boasting of his war heroics or the wounds he suffered in combat. While the political context makes him look particularly contemptuous toward commoners and the poor, at his core Coriolanus seems the type who doesn't really see himself accountable to anyone. I don't mean that he's a sociopath, but that he doesn't feel that he should have to give an account of himself, or explain himself to anyone. He does his duty and should be accepted as he is, but if anyone gets in the way of his duty, all bets are off.

Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in this picture, which boasts a screenplay by John Logan, in case anyone wondered why this isn't called William Shakespeare's Coriolanus. While some may be reminded of the infamous "Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor" credit on the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford version of The Taming of the Shrew, Logan and Fiennes have added context, not text, to the play. Like many moderns, they've done up the Roman tragedy in modern dress, setting it in "A place that calls itself Rome" but looks like somewhere between the Serbia where it was shot and the class-conflicted Britain where it opened. Caius Marcius fights with modern weapons, though his is the kind of war that pauses while he and the Volscian chieftain (Gerard Butler) duel with knives. His political travails are televised and from Rome he can Skype with soldiers on the front lines. It's a familiar gimmick but Fiennes goes about it as if no one had ever thought of it before. Yet it's unclear whether the modernization really clarifies the essence of the play, especially when you're unfamiliar with the original and don't know how much may have been cut out of the movie. There's nothing wrong with cutting Shakespeare, as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet proved by cutting nothing, but you are entitled to wonder whether an edited text still delivers Shakespeare's message or if it's been reshaped to another purpose. That suspicion wouldn't bug me so much if Fiennes's purpose were more clear. He films the play with the trapping of modern political media, but despite his character's railing against the rabble it's hard to tell whether we should sympathize with or condemn Coriolanus's opinions. His political rivals are a couple of cynical hacks but that doesn't make Caius Marcius right. The film's political ambiguity may reflect that of the play, which I haven't read in full, but after all Fiennes's efforts to make the story contemporary you'd expect him to do more to make it relevant. His own performance is part of the problem. The Shakespeare scholar Stephen Goldblatt saw in Fiennes little more than a constant expression of nausea, and while that sort of sullen disgust may suit the character there's something fussy about Fiennes and his voice that makes him unconvincing as a man of war. His voice lacks the power this character should have. Fiennes might have been better off casting Butler in the lead, had he more confidence in the great brute's ability with iambic pentameter. But that something soft in Fiennes's performance probably has something to do with Coriolanus being, albeit sullenly, a mama's boy, the son of Vanessa Redgrave. Here the actress is a kind of militant stage mother, down to sporting her own uniform and beret, and one who won't let the hero's wife (Jessica Chastain) supplant her as primary caregiver and counselor. There's something here that explains Caius Marciu's discomfort with fame but Fiennes the director doesn't manage to draw it out. The fact is, he's not very good at directing and can't get the best from his players, himself included. It's too bad, because Coriolanus seems a very relevant play today, The least Fiennes has done is convince me that the play is worth another try on film -- with no great wait necessary.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Now Playing: AUG. 22, 1962

Here's a slow late-summer week with a lot of recent wide releases held over. Most of the action is on the exploitation front, starting with Colonie NY, where Poor White Trash arrives as promised.

The other big exploitation picture of the season makes a bigger splash in Lewiston ME.

Here's the rest of the ad.

Meanwhile, Once Upon A Knight arrives in Palm Beach with some snazzy ad art. The style looks familiar but I can't quite place it.

More exploitation in Spokane WA. Here is a 1957 West German jungle picture, a sequel to Liane, Jungle Goddess.

Note the "nymphet" angle to get a little rub off Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, still in first run all over the country.

In Reading PA, is it a preseason football game? No, it's a clash of Rita Hayworth's former husbands -- though I hope they don't mean the tough guy on the right to be Orson Welles. has a trailer for The Tartars. Check out the "shameless revelry of a pagan ritual" and other amazing attractions, not to mention one of those clean-shaven Vikings that used to rampage across the world.

Finally, some more upscale exploitation in Salt Lake City UT.

Some Britons seem to have agreed with some of that ballyhoo. The brouhaha over Peeping Tom pretty much killed director Michael Powell's career in Great Britain, but the film is revered as a classic today.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

DVR Diary: BLACK GOLD (1947)

Phil Karlson's sentimental Cinecolor spectacle marks a multiple milestone. One of the first releases by Monogram Pictures under its new upmarket Allied Artists label, it's also, to the best of my knowledge, the first starring role for future Oscar winner and Hollywood legend Anthony Quinn, who had been toiling as heavies and in supporting roles for a decade prior. As such, if I'm right, it sets a tone for Quinn's subsequent star career, for right off the bat we have him as an earthy ethnic type, more wise than intelligent, whose vitality is his greatest virtue. The film itself, based partly on fact and written by Agnes Christine Johnson, is a curious document of its time, progressive and patronizing at the same time, an avowedly anti-racist film bordering on stereotype whenever its star is on screen.

It opens with a strong hint of the tougher tales Karlson would tell later, with a couple of cowboy types bringing an old Chinese man and his Americanized son across the border from Mexico. The boy, Danny (Ducky Louie, probably best remembered as a young Filipino martyr in Back to Bataan, also with Quinn) was born here, but the old man's just come across the ocean. His journey ends in the desert as the cowboys shoot him in the back after taking his money. Danny's horse throws him and drags him, but the cowboys skedaddle at the sight of what they think is a Border Patrol man before they can finish the kid off. The lone rider is no lawman, but Charlie's Eagle (Quinn), a reservation rancher and horse breeder who rescues Danny and gently warns him against blaming all whites for the crimes of the cowboys. White men killed Charlie's own father but he got over his hate and has come to know good whites as well as bad. He takes Danny under his wing on a trip to Mexico, where he plans to race his filly Black Hope, but Charlie doesn't understand the racing business. Signing the horse up for a claiming race, he's stunned when a slick breeder puts up the claim money and takes possession of Black Hope after the horse wins. Charlie and Danny promptly steal the horse back and bring him home to the Eagle ranch, where Charlie's wife (played by Quinn's own wife, Katherine De Mille) waits stoically, but with almost instinctual anticipation of his return, every time Charlie goes wandering as is his ancient wont. Charlie doesn't exactly live by the old ways, but he has some of the old instincts, including an aversion to closed spaces. But now that he's settled down for awhile, the Eagles set about adopting Danny and sending him to school. A few chants of "Chin Chin Chinaman" are enough to keep the kid away from class, but a pretty schoolteacher and parental pressure set him straight. All is well for Danny except for that great adolescent rite of passage, the death of a beloved animal. Charlie has cajoled a prestigious breeder into mating Black Hope with Black Tony, a prize thoroughbred, but the mare won't long survive the foaling of Black Gold and Charlie has to put one in her brain while Danny cries inconsolably.

Black Gold was a real Indian-owned steed that won the 1924 Kentucky Derby, and Charlie Eagle is very loosely based on Al Hoots, the man who actually had a misadventure in a Mexican claiming race and whose mare was the mother of the actual horse. The concept of an adopted Chinese son who rides Black Gold to victory is an innovation of the film script. It's an admirable multicultural gesture but the picture hardly seems progressive with Quinn's performance in the foreground. While Charlie's wife is rez-educated and speaks impeccable English, our hero babbles in Hollywood pidgin, speaking of himself consistently in the third person. At least that's better than "me" this and "me" that, I suppose. Charlie's simplicity is hard to swallow sometimes. How plausible is it that a landowner in oil country could be as indifferent to the prospect of striking oil as Charlie is? But Black Gold shows Charlie caring very little whether his well comes in and complaining when the gusher soils his land. So horse-obsessed is he that the only benefit he sees from the well is when someone calls the oil "Black Gold" and gives him a name for his foal. Indeed, the oil proves his undoing when an injury Charlie suffers while wandering too close to the well saps his strength. In the would-be tearjerking highlight of the picture the hero decides to die oldschool, wandering into the desert to meet his maker, only to have his wife, son and horse show up to comfort him. Unfortunately, Charlie's demise take the life out of the picture, so that Danny's ride to victory at Churchill Downs proves anticlimactic. In part that's because Karlson, relying on actuality footage filmed at the track by B. Reeves Eason, doesn't figure out how to make the race dramatic. But the main reason is that Black Gold's race was Charlie Eagle's dream more than anyone else's, and without Charlie seeing it and getting vindicated the film has no real payoff. Understandably, Quinn soon returned to character acting and the film was pretty much forgotten. Still, in light of the career to come, Black Gold is clearly an important part of Quinn's filmography because it definitely gave somebody -- Quinn himself or others who watched the thing -- an enduring idea of what Anthony Quinn was supposed to be on screen.

Monday, August 20, 2012


With the rediscovery of his 1962 crime comedy Mafioso, Alberto Lattuada got his foot in the door of cinematic history. Previously known internationally only for co-directing Variety Lights with Federico Fellini, Lattuada looked like another master from a golden age of Italian movie comedy, the years when "Italian Style" became a global brand. Lattuada had 40 directing credits in a career of nearly 50 years, but nothing of Mafioso's prestige has emerged lately. Instead, you can find some of his pictures streaming on Netflix, including his entry in the spy-parody sweepstakes that followed in the wake of the James Bond phenomenon. The director joined forces with four other writers to come up with a story that's sometimes sharply satiric toward the Cold War, and sometimes hopelessly childish.

Somewhere in Red China, Perry Liston (Patrick O'Neal) is being tortured on a machine that spins him like a top. He's a journalist, but the Chinese are convinced that he's a spy. Sharing his cell are Hank Norris (Henry Silva), who actually is a sort of freelance spy, and an elderly Chinese man who's happened to hold on to a valuable ring. In an unconscious cross between J.R.R. Tolkien and the origin of Iron Man, this dying sage bestows upon Liston a magic ring. Actually, it secretes a liquid which, when absorbed into the skin, makes a person invisible for exactly twenty minutes, but this can be done only once every ten hours. Hank scoffs at the whole idea, but when Liston vanishes in front of a firing squad he yells for the guard -- he now has valuable information to sell.

With the aid of a Chinese general's wife, Liston flies back to the Free World, where we next see him being tortured on exactly the same machine the Chicoms used on him -- the Americans later admit that they bought it from China. Matchless plays occasionally with the essential similarity of all the superpowers. The Chinese have surgically altered some of their citizens to pass for American; the Americans have apparently done the reverse. Later, we watch the Americans watching Liston on a spy camera, only for Lattuada to pull back to reveal that the Russians are watching the Americans. Again, he pulls back to show the Chinese watching the Russians on another screen. I may have forgotten the correct order, but you get the idea. Mocking the Cold War is arguably a mature approach to the spy parody, but most of the time Matchless plays like a bad B movie out of old-time Hollywood. Its invisibility effects are no advance on what John P. Fulton had been doing since the 1930s and the concept of an invisibility ring itself seems too primitive for the spy genre.

Likewise, later in the picture, after the Americans have recruited Liston to take down the eccentric millionaire Andreanu (the coincidentally cast Donald Pleasence -- You Only Live Twice came out that same summer), our hero's first move is to break up the villain's fight-fixing racket. The racket consists of having a hypnotist in the stands to mesmerize the opposing fighter so Andreanu's man will win. Liston takes care of the hypnotist by invisibly throwing ashes in his face, and to make things more certain gets into the ring to distract Andreanu's fighter, finally holding his legs in place so the other fellow can flatten him. Andreanu's mansion is staffed by robots that wouldn't look out of place in a Republic serial, apart from the 18th century livery they wear.

While robots keep his guests liquored up, Donald Pleasence enjoys a night at the fights -- but not for long.

Maybe there's a point to these juvenile gimmicks. Maybe for someone of Lattuada's age the whole Bond phenomenon was the stuff of comic books or Italy's counterparts of the pulps. But if a spy-parody picture is to some extent supposed to ape the style or supposed sophistication of the actual Bond pictures, Matchless fails except on the most superficial level of snazzy location shoots and attractive women. O'Neal and Silva get to chase each other around New York City and Hamburg, among other locales, and Lattuada got to film impressively on the roof of the Pan Am Building. The women are Princess Ira von Furstenberg, whom many ads promoted as the star of the picture, as Liston's artistic ally, and Nicoletta Machiavelli as Hank Norris's eventual sidekick.

Above, Princess von Furstenberg explains modern art to Patrick O'Neal -- and there is an explanation. Below, she gets the drop on Nicoletta Machiavelli.

Only Pleasence and the ladies, the former understandably, seem to understand what the genre requires. Pleasence gets to throw fussy tantrums and display an obsession with sunglasses, while the Matchless Girls are effortlessly charismatic. O'Neal, on the other hand, gives a cranky performance that does little to win an audience over, while Silva gives just about the worst performance I've ever seen from him. His Hank Norris is a buffoon from beginning to end and Silva plays him as an absolute barking idiot, clapping like a child while watching cartoons or gibbering like a lunatic after O'Neal eludes him yet again. In short, the role does not play to the actor's strengths, though he seems to have had fun playing a moron. At times, he seems like the only person having fun in the picture, and he's definitely having more fun than the audience.

I don't regret watching Matchless because it was often very pretty to look at as a virtual tourist of the past. Italian films from this period will usually look great if they have nothing else going for them, and cinematographer Alessandro D'Eva and art director Enzo Del Prato meet that minimal obligation with ease. But Matchless really tests how long you can watch pretty pictures without your intelligence feeling insulted, and it raises a question for future study: was this or Mafioso more typical of Alberto Lattuada's career?

Sunday, August 19, 2012


If there had been an Expendables in the 1930s, Victor McLaglen would have been part of it. More to the point, had there been one in the 1950s McLaglen would have been there. For a generation after the coming of sound, he was Hollywood's idea of a tough man, so that no one seemed to consider it implausible that his character could brawl with John Wayne when McLaglen was in his mid-sixties. He had a record to back up his reputation, having been a heavyweight boxing champion of the British Army during World War I. But he represented a different idea of physical power than we envision today. For men like McLaglen or Wallace Beery, it was all about bulk, with a little bit of attitude thrown in. They would have found it ludicrous to need to get the kind of definition Sylvester Stallone aspires to, or Arnold Schwarzenegger achieved, in order to be taken seriously as action heroes. In a way, Liam Neeson during his midlife renaissance as an action hero comes closer to the McLaglen model. We don't assume that Neeson is ripped, but we know that he's a big old man with cunning and a mean streak. So with McLaglen. If you asked audiences of the 1930s who'd win between McLaglen and, say, Johnny Weissmuller, a body beautiful type, and my hunch is that people'd pick Vic. Hollywood envisioned McLaglen as a one-man army half a century before that became a common movie concept -- and they assumed he could act, too. He closed out the year in which he earned an Oscar for John Ford's The Informer with Tay Garnett's Professional Soldier -- so called, I presume, because the word "mercenary" wasn't yet part of the pop-culture lexicon -- for Twentieth Century-Fox, where he was paired with fast-rising child star Freddy Bartholomew in what the studio apparently imagined as a more male-oriented and violent version of Little Miss Marker.
Like that Shirley Temple hit, Garnett's film is based on a Damon Runyon story, and Runyon's story has a similar "tough guy bonds with cute kid" focus, following the well-established Wallace Beery-Jackie Cooper model. McLaglen plays Michael Donovan, an ex-Marine whose past exploits seem partially based on the career of Smedley Butler. His known involvement in the toppling of governments makes him a person of interest to would-be revolutionaries in a Balkan kingdom. They want him to kidnap, but not kill, the country's monarch, assisted only by his protege, George Foster (Michael Whalen). Together, Donovan and the revolutionists -- who assure our hero that they're neither Bolsheviks nor Nazis -- make up history's most incompetent conspirators. They do not provide, and Donovan never asks for a description of the monarch to be snatched. So when Donovan and Foster sneak into the palace during a costume party, they immediate pounce on the first old guy the find sleeping in a big bed. They are interrupted in their assault by a boy who seems more intrigued than alarmed by the mayhem. Fortunately, the lad quickly corrects their mistake. The old fellow isn't the king -- he is. And having convinced himself that the intruders are American gangsters ("Are you Dillinger?" he asks Donovan) he eagerly wants to follow wherever they're going -- though his nanny Countess Sonia (Gloria Stuart), whom Foster had met cute with earlier, is less eager when she stumbles onto the scene.

The revolutionists don't expect to take over as soon as the little king is gone. They know that Peter II is but a figurehead for a clique of corrupt nobles led by Gino (the always-repulsive C. Henry Gordon), and that the boy's popularity has shielded Gino's clique from proper scrutiny. Donovan's employers mean to restore the king as soon as Gino's government collapses, as they expect it to once it shows its true face. In the meantime, Peter enjoys the adventure of his life with adult playmates who can show him how American sports are actually played -- his own notion is a bizarre jumble of uniforms and equipment. Countess Sonia doesn't trust the revolutionists, however, and manages to get the location of the safe house to the authorities. But when the troops sweep in Donovan escapes with the king. While they remain on the run Gino's government falls and the revolutionists take over with promises of reform. Running out of money and food, Donovan figures he can now deliver Peter to the palace, but Gino's men intercept them and imprisons them in the villain's private fortress. Now the shoe is on the other foot, with the revolutionists' credibility in question during the king's continued absence, while Gino schemes to make that absence permanent.

McLaglen's physical power has been emphasized throughout the picture. During an early brawl in a Paris cabaret, he wields what may be history's flimsiest balsa-wood chair; flung across the room, it explodes into splinters upon hitting a victim's head. At the climax, he becomes not just a one-man army but nearly a one-man Wild Bunch. In one of the most violent sequences of the first years of Code Enforcement, Donovan gets control of a machine-gun nest after breaking out of jail and rescuing Peter from a firing squad. He gleefully mows down at least a dozen of Gino's soldiers, but he's just getting started. Growing impatient from waiting for more men to charge into firing range, he uproots the 88-lb. weapon and goes on an amoklauf through Gino's compound, mowing men down left and right. Soon the mere sight of him wielding the weapon suffices to make hundreds more soldiers surrender, and the day is saved. Solo heroism on that scale is uncommon in the Classic-Hollywood era apart from war-hero biopics. It's a moment of exuberant fury that just about makes the ever-predictable and often idiotic story worth sitting through. McLaglen doesn't exactly vindicate the Academy, playing a type rather than a character in a role Beery might have done just as plausibly. He doesn't have the strong personalities to play against that produced what I consider McLaglen's best work in Gunga Din, while Bartholomew gives a one-note performance, which is all his role really requires. He'd accomplish more with the clash of childish privilege and working-class savvy in Captains Courageous soon enough. Professional Soldier is no one's finest hour, but it's interesting from a genre-history standpoint as a virtual "action movie" long before that was a meaningful category in Hollywood. Its downfall may have been that it had to be something else instead.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Now Playing: AUG. 17, 1962

Here are two kinds of promos for films not opening this weekend. From Salt Lake City, here's a full-page ad pushing reserved-seat sales for the latest Cinerama extravaganza.

And from Schenectady NY, a subtle first teaser for the exploitation event of the summer, Poor White Trash.

This certainly sticks out in a page full of conventional movie ads, but I don't know if it'd actually grab people's attention the way the exhibitor hopes. We'll certainly see different tactics as the release date approaches.

As for what's actually playing, let's start back in Salt Lake City with a peplum double feature.

Palm Beach tops that with a gangster quadruple feature.

The Untouchables remains a popular TV show in 1962, and the original two-part pilot for the show was recently released to theaters as The Scarface Mob. This attempt to take advantage of the show is a profoundly mixed bag, combining a Samuel Fuller film and Edward L. Cahn's godawful Inside the Mafia, a disappointing Legs Diamond biopic from Budd Boetticher, and a Barry Sullivan picture that I haven't seen.

For the arthouse audience, here's something new in Pittsburgh.

And now for some films I haven't heard of,starting in Baltimore.

Apparently, David Niven learns how to kill while evacuating his wife and a deposed president from the country of "Tribulacion." Death by corkscrew is the highlight reported by

Back in Pittsburgh...

"An insurance investigator who is allergic to naked women searches for a missing painting," says IMDB. Well, I hope he doesn't run into any naked women in his work, but I have a funny feeling he won't be so lucky. I hope everyone else is luckier in their moviegoing and movie-watching this weekend.