Wednesday, January 30, 2013

ACT OF VENGEANCE (Rape Squad, 1974)

For male audiences of the 1970s, female empowerment could be both titilating and scary, if not slightly ridiculous at the same time. You find that mix in its most volatile form in those women-in-prison movies that end in violent, sometimes revolutionary uprisings by murderous, scantily-clad women with scores to settle. Those exploitation pictures arguably objectify women, but just as arguably they also portray women objectifying their own sexuality, making it a weapon against oppressive or merely obnoxious men. The vigilante subgenre liberated these fantasies from the disreputable if not subliminally revolutionary prison context while playing the same victims-turned-avengers game. That brings us to a women's vigilante film from the director of Count Yorga, Vampire. Bob Kelljan (Kelljchian here) juggles empowerment and exploitation, perhaps hoping that audiences could have it both way. It might be more accurate to say that he exploits empowerment, but it remains empowerment all the same.

An American city is being terrorized by the "Jingle Bells Rapist." Behind his trendsetting hockey mask, he compels his victims to sing the Christmas carol before doing the deed. After, he expects them to declare him the best lay they've ever had. His latest victim as the film opens is Linda (Jo Ann Harris), a self-employed operator of a mobile snack bar. Her efforts to fight off the tall man in the orange garbage-man jumpsuit prove futile. Her appeals to the police add insult to her injuries. They're not only convinced that they can never catch the masked man, but they also seem tired of women complaining about rape. One detective even makes the classic suggestion that victims lay back and enjoy it. As in any vigilante movie, the system can't, maybe won't do justice for people.

Not long after "Jingle Bells" claims his next victim, a seamstress who tries to fight him off with her scissors, Linda joins the other victims to witness an absurd police lineup of hockey-masked men. The show was designed to show the women the impossibility of identifying the real rapist, but they aren't buying it. They convene again at one of their homes to plan their own strategy, starting with self-defense. They take karate classes from a belligerent little blond (Lada Edmunds jr.) who helps them overcome their socially-conditioned aversion to violence. After this initial exercise in empowerment, the girls share a whirlpool together as the audience ogles them.

The "rape squad" sets out to entrap offending males, breaking into one offender's bachelor pad to smash his furniture, not to mention his precious pyramid of Bud cans, and inflict karate on him. They intervene in that typical Seventies scene, a pimp disciplining his woman, calling in their instructor straight from the dojo. It's an indelible moment: the petite avenger, barefoot in her gi, kicking the crap out of the stereotypical mack in a parking lot as his thralls look on with gradual approval. The effect can't help but look comic and probably was meant that way, but the laughter in the theater as the women turned tables on the macho men was probably partly the nervous sort. In these scenes, are heroines are often provocatively dressed, the better to lure likely suspects and keep men's eyes on the screen. Some boors might say they're dressed like they're asking for it, and as a matter of fact, they are asking for it, only this time they also have the answer. Some scolds might say that a film about female empowerment shouldn't cater so much to the male gaze, but the film itself exposes the vulnerability of the male gaze under the new rules.

Nevertheless, Jingle Bells has managed, thanks to his anonymity, to keep tabs on his victims-turned-pursuers and seems entertained by the new turn in the game. It inspires him to imagine an ultimate coup, taking all the women at once. Despite everything the women have learned, he comes damned close to pulling it off. No matter what, people simply will insist on separating from the main group, falling behind to fix a shoe, etc. At the climax it's Linda vs. Jingle Bells (revealed at last as Peter Brown) with one woman dead, another captured and the rest surrendering. He appears to hold the upper hand with his threat to kill his prisoner, but Linda has figured out his weakness: vanity. Insulting his manhood enrages him until he abandons his superior ground to battle Linda one-on-one. Now she's got him, but what's she going to do with him? The film closes with Linda facing the classic vigilante-film dilemma, and not quite on the triumphant note one might expect to hear.

Act of Vengeance had to be instant camp. The actresses shout their lines at fever pitch and Jingle Bells is a sight that gets hard to take seriously after awhile. The deck is so stacked against the victims early, and their later victories are so comically lopsided that any aspiration to realism is hopeless. Whether anyone went to this looking for realism is another story. Act is a fantasy film, but what keeps it compelling despite its clumsiness is the constant swirl of seemingly contradictory fantasies. If the Seventies were a crazy time in America, this film is an authentic document of that time.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: NO OTHER WOMAN (1933)

Here's that picture I mentioned in yesterday's post that was playing Milwaukee eighty years ago this week. J. Walter Ruben directed it but may as well have shared credit with montage specialist Slavko Vorkapich, who does get credit here with "transitional effects." Vorkapich helps Ruben get this story done in under an hour, and I doubt anyone wanted it to linger any longer. No Other Woman is a masochistic melodrama about the conflicted love of socially ambitious steelworker's daughter Anna (Irene Dunne) and unambitious steelworker Jim Stanley (Charles Bickford). Jim is only relatively unambitious; he aims to be a crew leader at the mill, but Anna looks beyond the mill to a wider world of culture and achievement. She sympathizes with the young chemist Joe (Eric Linden) but loves Jim despite herself and marries him. She gets him to save money when he'd rather blow his paycheck and turns their new home into a boardinghouse to build the account even more. Jim tires of it one night and goes on a bender. Anna sees another woman walk him home but is all forgiveness when he wakes contrite in the morning. In his contrition he's also more receptive to Anna's suggestion that they invest their savings in Joe's new dye process. Cue the transitional effect as the project expands from a humble factory to an industrial empire.

The Stanleys are rich now but Jim has an itch he has to scratch. He has an affair with Margot (doomed Dietrich clone Gwili Andre) and, emboldened by alcohol, decides to divorce Anna. She won't let him go, but we're to understand that she has his best interests at heart. Jim has to take her to court and helped by his nasty lawyer Bonelli (despite the Italian name J. Carroll Naish skips his ethnic shtick) he gets his household staff to perjure themselves by testifying to Anna's tryst with some sap. It's they said, she said, but Anna has no way to prove that anyone's lying. A divorce means she loses not only her husband but her son, and that's taking things too far. Defying the court, she acquiesces in every lie but insists that Jim can't take custody of the boy because the boy isn't his! Guilty Jim has been hanging his head and hiding his face throughout the trial, but Anna's gambit wakes him up to his own viciousness. He abruptly confesses to suborning the perjury of his servants, withdraws his demand for divorce, and gets arrested. Vorkapich shows us a whirlpool of newsprint revealing that Jim has gone to jail and lost his fortune; a symbolic shot has the jailbird watching through prison bars as his empire disappears, bit by bit, in a reversal of the earlier transition effect. He's out after a year and in a spirit of self-abnegation takes a menial job in the old mill. He's promptly discovered and Anna appears to forgive him and take him back before he can pack his bags and bolt. You have to wonder why he took a job close to home if he didn't want to see any of his old friends or loved ones, but that's where the tall corn grows.

No Other Woman is often visually interesting, not only for the Vorkapich  bits but for a cute model steel mill that belches fire from its smokestacks like clockwork, but the story is ridiculous. Or at least I like to think it is. But just last week I was reading an obituary for the woman who married her boyfriend after he got out of jail for blinding her with acid. Love is strange and love is stupid. You'd think that a couple who went through that courtroom ordeal could never forgive or even speak to each other again. If they think differently, maybe that's not just because they're badly conceived fictional characters. Others are better qualified to judge than I.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Now Playing: JAN. 27, 1933

The Warner has a Warner Bros. picture this week that I've seen and reviewed. Notice how the ad copy maximizes the heart or sex angle in this prison drama.


I'd say Sing Sing was the highlight of the week, but it's hard to say that when it's the only film of this week that I've seen. Here are the others, starting with one I will watch this week -- it's on TCM Monday, Jan. 28.

Next, here's a picture that looks like Pre-Code all over the place.

This is a sequel to the silent WW1 blockbuster What Price Glory starring McLaglen and Lowe, with two doses of ethnic humor thrown in: future "Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez and Scandinavian shtick specialist El Brendel. At least those two are authentic representatives of their respective ethnicities, which is more than can be said in the following cases. First, Sylvia Sidney as a Japanese:

Then, most likely the undisputed champions of political incorrectness, Moran and Mack:

Also known as "The Two Black Crows," Moran and Mack rode Amos 'n Andy's coattails to radio stardom in the late Twenties and actually beat their blackface peers to movies, making their first feature, Why Bring That Up?, in 1929. Hypnotized is reportedly more a Moran solo film; thescribefiles has uploaded what's apparently the team's only scene together in the picture: half a minute of horror.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE LIFE OF JIMMY DOLAN (1933)

In 2013 the Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o got into trouble for talking about his tragic romance with a girlfriend who didn't exist. Jimmy Dolan could sympathize. Jimmy (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is a champion boxer who wins hearts by making shout-outs to his ma during post-fight interviews. It's part of his image as a clean-cut, clean-living American youth. Post-fight and post-interview, Jimmy's a different man. He gets drunk. And when he gets drunk, he lets slip that his mom's been dead for years. Then he realizes that he's let that slip in the presence of a reporter. He and his manager (Lyle Talbot) desperately try to persuade the reporter not to blab in print, but there's no way the man is letting go of that scoop. Jimmy becomes more desperate and slugs him. But whoops! The reporter dashes his brains out on a fireplace and Jimmy's a killer. Manager and girlfriend hustle a dead-drunk Jimmy away, but finally decide to ditch him and let him face his fate alone. Some friend Talbot is: he takes Jimmy's money and his fancy watch. That way, when Talbot and the girl are killed in a car crash, the police identify Talbot's charred corpse as Dolan by the watch. Well, most of them: Phalaxer, a disgraced detective (Guy Kibbee) -- a man he'd nabbed was proven innocent, but only after he fried -- visited Jimmy after that last fight and remembers him wearing his watch on the opposite arm from the corpse's. No one's listening to him, however, and Jimmy, when he tries to collect his purse from the fight, learns from a shocked promoter that he's legally dead. The promoter advises him to disappear, become a bum, keep his head down, avoid people. He'll only need a fraction of his purse for that.

So goes the first act of Archie Mayo's film, and it's a decent shock to see Talbot exit so early. It's practically a new film from there as Jimmy ends up out west as a handyman at the little farm for crippled orphans run by Auntie Moore (Aline MacMahon) and her niece Peggy (Loretta Young). They're raising some precocious orphans there, including Mickey Rooney, "Farina" Hopkins from Our Gang, and Dawn "Anne Shirley" O'Dea. But they're also very poor, and you can see where this is leading. Just as Jimmy Cagney would in Winner Take All this same year, Jimmy Dolan (under his alias of Jack Daugherty) will enter the ring again to raise money for the farm. He has to fight the local champ, "King Cobra" (a menacing Sammy Stein), who's taking on two other men, including a young and scared John Wayne, the same night. Jimmy will earn $500 for every round he lasts against the bigger man, and he thinks his style is a good match for him. But one of the orphans happened to take a picture of him on the farm, and that picture won a contest and was published in a magazine, and back in New York Detective Phalaxer saw the picture. Burning for vindication -- he fantasizes himself lording it over his humbled boss (an unbilled Edward Arnold) -- Phalaxer embarks on a Javert-like quest to prove his hunch, showing up at the fight arena to distract Jimmy from the task at hand. King Cobra has destroyed the Duke and the other prelim palooka, neither of whom did much to soften up the brute for Jimmy. Nor can Jimmy really open up on him from fear that Phalaxer will recognize his style -- and the detective is absolutely convinced that "Daugherty" is his man anyway. This is probably as close to a literal "no win" situation as you can get....

Jimmy Dolan is interesting to watch for all the familiar faces who go unnamed --  not only Arnold but Rooney, Shirley and Clarence Muse all go unbilled. Wayne is tenth-billed; he was let out of Warners' B-western ghetto occasionally, most notably in Baby Face, and makes more of an impression now, probably, for his atypical nervous turn than he did during the first run.  On top, Fairbanks was near the end of his Warners contract, a period practically unknown for decades when he was best known for later swashbuckling roles. The revival of Pre-Code movies demands a reappraisal of Fairbanks, who at Warners was far from the genetically-predetermined type he would become. I'm often impressed by his range in these pictures, or else by the continuing novelty of seeing him play bums, boxers, gangsters, etc. He has one of those Noo Yawker voices that gave Warner Bros. films their era-defining snap and puts it to good use here. There's not much he can do with the climactic melodrama, but he's quite good as the dissolute dope of the first act, more convincing as a pug than the name "Douglas Fairbanks Jr." might lead you to expect. The more I see his Warners films, the more I'm convinced that Junior is a worthy member of that greatest of studio stock companies. Dolan isn't really anyone's finest hour -- Loretta Young has another largely thankless ingenue role -- but everyone's trying and for a Warners fan it's not at all unpleasant, even though longer than average, to sit through.

Here's your trailer, courtesy of as usual.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Raoul Walsh's High Sierra is my favorite Humphrey Bogart movie. The first of Bogart's 1941 breakthrough pictures that made him a leading-man star, it's overshadowed by the other one, The Maltese Falcon. So successful was Falcon that Warner Bros. stopped making films of Dashiell Hammett's novel after that third try. The studio did not retire W. R. Burnett's source novel for High Sierra, however. Walsh himself put it in western dress as Colorado Territory in 1948, and seven years later Stuart Heisler brought the story back into the 20th century with a brand new title that suggests something closer to despair than the tragic grandeur of the original movie. Admittedly, the High Sierra story could benefit from color and Cinemascope in ways not obviously beneficial to The Maltese Falcon. While the location work often looks good, Heisler lack's Walsh's more poetic sensibility and his feel for atmosphere. He makes a mistake right out of the gate, dispensing with the opening scene in which Roy Earle, an aging Dillinger type, is released from prison. In the original, you immediately get the contrast between imprisonment and the freedom that matters so much to Earle -- not to mention the mockery of freedom resulting from his surprise pardon, engineered only so he can take part in a hotel heist. Heisler's film opens with Earle already on the road to the tourist camp where his partners await him. Blame that on the script or on studio editing, but Heisler lacks visual flare. He usually stages scenes in long shots that emphasize the wide screen in a way that makes the sets, particularly the criminals' quarters, look oversized and artificial. The color throughout is overly bright and garish. The most interestingly thing Heisler does occasionally is tilt his camera, but you get the impression that he does that mainly so he can fit the heads of tall actors into shots where other performers are laying down. That and the actors are what you'll most likely remember about this film.

The actors face a greater challenge than Heisler. The biggest challenge faces Jack Palance, the remake's Roy Earle. I Died comes from the brief period when Hollywood contemplated making Palance not just a star but a leading man, maybe a Bogart for his time. He's just a little too young for the role, however -- bear in mind that Bogart himself was made to look older to play Earle. Palance is too strange a figure with his height and his angular face to match Bogart's everyman gravitas -- in his dark suits in the film's bright settings he becomes something like a piece of abstract animation. There's an odd serenity about him, when he isn't shooting people or keeping his punk partners in line, exemplified by his line, "I'm not angry at anybody." Maybe coldness is the word I'm looking for, but his co-star is partly to blame for that. If Palance is no replacement for Bogart he's at least an honorable alternative, but in place of High Sierra's Ida Lupino I Died casts Shelley Winters, and it's game over right there. If Palance seems too young for his part Winters definitely seems too old for the role Lupino played. She's too intense, compared to Lupino's slow burn, yet without achieving any real chemistry with Palance. I suppose her performance does help you understand why this film's Earle is initially more interested in the clubfooted but pretty Velma (Lori Nelson replaces Joan Leslie), whose surgery he pays for only to be rebuffed by the shallow girl. But you believed it anyway the first time, while it's harder to understand Earle's attraction to the Winters character. You really shouldn't have that problem watching this story.

Otherwise, this film is a feast of familiar faces, from Lon Chaney Jr. having an easy time (and a good scene) as a bedridden, boozing gangster to Lee Marvin implausibly cast as a mere "punk" whom Palance pistol-whips in one of the few scenes more impressively staged here than by Walsh, to fleeting glances of Warners prospects Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams. The cast deserves a better film than Heisler made, and the idea of remaking High Sierra with modern movie technology wasn't a bad one. But if Heisler was just going to plant Palance in soundstage mountains during the climax while the second unit romps on the real mountain, you can't help asking why anyone bothered.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ELENA (2011)

Andrey Zvyagintsev's film starts as a visually eloquent portrait of class divisions in post-Communist Russia. All the director needs to do is follow the title character on a long commute. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a middle-aged former nurse who married a former patient, a wealthy businessman. She still seems as much a nursemaid as a spouse to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). She sleeps in a separate bed and rises ahead of him to draw his curtains and prod him awake. We'll see evidence later that the couple remains intimate and occasionally affectionate. But something stands between them: Elena's adult son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family. The best sequence of the film traces Elena's long commute from Vladimir's spacious, modern home to Sergey's cramped apartment. Elena doesn't drive; for her there's a lot of walking and riding trains, and a stop at a grocery store, before she makes her way past a nuclear power plant to Sergey's home in the projects. Zvyagintsev directs with an empathy rare in modern film for modes of travel other than driving, and a keen eye for the geography of class. Living in the shadow of a nuclear plant is today's equivalent of the proverbial other side of the tracks. In her commute, Elena seems to cross from one world to another.

Sergey is unemployed, an apparent deadbeat. Married, he has a teenage son and a baby. The boy isn't promising. He may be Russian but you know the type. Apart from the occasional gangfight, he stays in his room and plays video games. Sometimes his dad will join him. If the boy can't get into college his only future is the military, a prospect Elena dreads. A scholarship isn't going to happen, and Sergey certainly can't afford to pay the boy's way. Vladimir can, but he can't understand why he should have to support Elena's people -- he didn't marry them. But he doesn't want to hurt Elena's feelings, either, so he says he'll think it over some more after initially refusing her. Then he goes and has a heart attack while swimming at his health club.

Vladimir's health crisis brings his own estranged child, a daughter, out of the woodwork. He's desperate to reconcile with her and is willing to make that a monetary transaction if necessary. While giving Elena a final refusal on subsidizing her grandson's education, he proposes to write a will giving most of his wealth to the daughter. That provokes Elena to take extreme measures....

That's the story, and you might be forgiven if, after memories of the impressive cinematography of Mikhail Krichman and the dependably ominous music of Phillip Glass fade, you find yourself wondering: is that it? In a way, I could argue that Elena is more realistic for doing without the melodramatic complications that usually follow this film's defining act. Zvyagintsev and screenwriter Oleg Negin clearly aspire to some damning portrait of pervasive ruthlessness in 21st century Russia. The constant background noise from TV is obviously meant to underscore this point -- a sports commentator observes that a sports coach is using "typical Soviet tactics" to push his team to the limit, for instance. But the obvious artistic ambition on display seems to demand that more happen in the picture than actually does, and Elena appears more pretentious in retrospect than it really should seem. Bringing in Glass to score the picture furthers that impression; using the arch-minimalist of modern music isn't exactly cinematic minimalism. The real problem may be that we don't see enough of Elena's two families to understand the choice she makes. We can see that the story's a kind of tragedy, but the presentation is perhaps too deadpan, too concerned with widescreen composition, for us to feel the tragedy enough, Markina's fine performance notwithstanding, for the social criticism to strike home. Maybe something's simply missing in translation. On the other hand, maybe my dissatisfaction with the ending was what the filmmakers intended: a blunt representation of Russia's constant injustice. That possibility allows me to recommend Elena despite my reservations. The film has a lot going for it in any event. Whatever it wants to say about Russia, its issues are really pretty easily recognizable no matter where you watch it.

Hollywood Gossip: JAN. 22, 1933

The Milwaukee Sentinel ran more than one Hollywood gossip column. One of its contributors was Eileen Percy, an actress just ending her career before the camera -- she has two 1933 credits listed at IMDB. She's most likely to be remembered as  Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s leading lady for three pictures in the late teens. Here's a clip from her column for this day in 1933.

Miriam Hopkins's reconciliation with Paramount didn't go perfectly smoothly. "Mike" would be released later this year as Torch Singer, with Claudette Colbert starring. Meanwhile, Columbia would release Robert Riskin's "Rules for Wives" script in June as Ann Carver's Profession, with Fay Wray starring. It sounds interesting.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Now Playing: JAN. 20, 1933

Let's start this week's visit to Milwaukee with the Wisconsin theater:

I tried watching Strange Interlude a few days ago. "Tried" should warn you. As people who've seen Animal Crackers may know, Eugene O'Neill's play allowed actors to express their inner thoughts, in contrast to the words they said to each other, by pausing for brief monologues. In the movie version, what they did was have the actors stand with their mouths shut while voice-overs spoke the inner thoughts. It quickly proved unwatchable.

Here's one I sat through all the way, playing at the Riverside:

The Penguin Pool Murder is an oddball picture in which eternal spinster Edna May Oliver plays a schoolmarm who takes a hand in solving a murder after discovering a body in the title location while on a field trip to an aquarium. James Gleason assists as a police inspector. This is lite fare, okay for an hour's amusement.

At the Warner:

There's no excuse for my not having seen William Wellman's Frisco Jenny, since I have it as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 collection. I'll have to get around to it eventually, and given that this is Wellman's peak period of productivity this ought to be good. As for the second feature, if TCM shows it I'll watch it.

At the Palace, George Raft gets the rub from last year's Scarface and lands a leading role in this Paramount picture.

Raft's a good guy in this one, joining forces with the cops to avenge his father's death. Probably worth a look if TCM will show more Pre-Code Paramounts.

Finally, at the Alhambra, a star one doesn't automatically identify with Pre-Code cinema, but popular at the time anyway.

The short subject Flame of the Pacific is listed as a 1934 release at IMDB, so a correction would appear to be in order. Here's the thing itself, uploaded to YouTube by travelfilmarchive.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


As an actor, Jimmy Wang Yu is probably best known for his roles as a one-armed fighter, whether as Chang Cheh's One-Armed Swordsman or his own One-Armed Boxer. As a director, he's certainly best known for his cult epic Master of the Flying Guillotine. But his earlier Beach of the War Gods may well be the best action movie you've never heard of. It's a pretty simple story and a typical Chinese-language exercise in Japanophobia, this time reaching back to the 16th century CE. With the Ming dynasty collapsing, Japanese pirates are preying on the Chinese coast, taking plunder and exacting tribute. They make demands of a certain town, only to find one man willing and able to defy them. Wang Yu plays Hsia Feng, nephew of a defeated, captive general and a leader of men in his own right. He realizes that he might manage to drive out a small force on his own, but with more pirates certain to come, the villagers need to learn to fight, and they need good fighters to teach them.


Yes, it's basically the magnificent seven samurai gladiators beyond the stars again, though Wang Yu falls slightly short of a quorum, recruiting four only warriors: a strongman with a big sword; a knife thrower with an arsenal for a vest; a spear fighter and his sometime antagonist, a dude that uses two shields for weapons. Fortunately, the villagers prove apt pupils who are soon able to give the pirates all the fight they want. Unfortunately for them, the pirates are led by one Shinobu Hashimoto (Fei Lung), who may be even more of a one-man army than Hsia Feng. The stage is set for an incredible battle in the village that lasts for nearly a half-hour of screen time. It's a tour-de-force of composition, choreography and editing by Wang Yu, his stunt coordinators and cinematographer Yao Hu Chiu.


The costume designer Li Kai-yuan deserves credit as well for making the action easy to follow. The rank-and-file good guys are in white, the rank-and-file bad guys in black. The Japanese in red have special skills or weapons that make them dangerous, while the five heroes and the main villain have distinctive costumes and features. Wang Yu holds his shots so you can follow the action, and indulges in some amazing lateral tracking shots as first Hsia Feng and later Shinobu march through opposing forces like swords through butter. A generous auteur, he builds Fei Lung up as an awesome antagonist who manages to take down two of the heroes during the main battle. The heroes all get big, picturesque heroic moments of their own, of course. Wang Yu also makes judicious use of slow-motion, particularly to highlight Hsia Feng's defeat of a particularly nasty red antagonist. This guy fights with a hook on a chain. Missing our hero, his hook gets embedded in a post. While he strains to release it, Hsia Feng throws another enemy into the extended chain. That serves to yank the weapon loose and propel the first bad guy into the path of our hero's sword. Shinobu gets some slo-mo highlights of his own to further build anticipation for the inevitable one-on-one showdown.


The final fight is a night battle fought at the foot of a windmill. You get the impression that Wang Yu is yet another filmmaker profoundly influenced by James Whale's Frankenstein from the way Hsia Feng dangles awhile from one of the turning windmill blades and the way he and Shinobu gaze at each other through a turning wagon wheel, as Whale's Frankenstein and Monster do through the gears inside their windmill. This closing showdown can't hope to top the epic battle that preceded it, but it makes a good denouement after the climactic carnage.

The Golden Harvest studio promoted Beach of the War Gods as the manliest of pictures, boasting of a total absence of women from a cast of thousands. It probably helps to be in a manly mood to appreciate its magnificent mayhem, but what made me appreciate it more was a film I'd watched just before -- a very recent wuxia picture I'll probably be reviewing shortly. That picture used modern wirework and CGI to let its heroes and villains leap about in ways impossible for Wang Yu forty years ago. But the CGI and green-screen moments were almost always painfully obvious and distracting in the newer movie, and while it was more progressive than Wang Yu's in at least one sense -- there were nearly as many prominent female warriors as there were males -- Beach had all the advantages otherwise. Wang Yu's film has a visceral immediacy and a committed intensity that was mostly missing from the more recent and more fantastical picture, and it had a director and all-around creative team that had clearly thought hard about maximizing the visual impact of the action they staged. The result is a kind of crazed masterpiece of epic violence that any fan of martial arts cinema must see sometime.

Here's a rather awkward English-language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by montrealflickers. Definitely see the picture in Chinese if you can.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE RULING VOICE (1931)

Here's a Warner Bros. gangster film from 1931 -- the year of The Public Enemy and a year after Little Caesar -- that most fans of the studio and its signature genre probably haven't heard of. That's most likely because Rowland V. Lee's film -- he directed and co-wrote it -- doesn't really feel like a Warner Bros. gangster film. That's not just because it's technically a First National release. Consider the two I mentioned, the founding films of the category. Both follow the rise of a gangster from lowly beginnings. That had to be a big part of their provocative appeal in Depression days. It was easy to identify with Rico or Tom Powers while nodding solemnly with everyone else when they got their comeuppances. By comparison, it's hard to identify with Jack Bannister (Walter Huston). Not only does he start the film on top of the criminal world, but it's hard to identify with the man who gives you a higher grocery bill in those same Depression days. Why does your milk and produce cost more when you can least afford the increase? Because Bannister runs a protection racket on the wholesalers and truckers who bring the stuff to your store. Buck him and your drivers will start going off overpasses, as illustrated in a nifty model shot. Why fight, anyway, even if Bannister increases his take, when you can pass the cost on to the consumer? If Ruling Voice is innovative at all, it may be in its portrayal of gangsterism as a kind of big business. Bannister meets with a board of directors (including an unbilled Charles [Ming] Middleton and Nat Pendleton) in an imposing office and treats his occupation like it's all a big game. He enjoys power and is ruthless in pursuit of it, but he's not a cruel man -- and that will prove his undoing.

Bannister is master of every contingency. When concerned citizens form a secret committee to investigate and destroy him, he somehow immediately identifies one of the members and induces the hapless man to spy on the committee for him. This arrangement is thwarted only by the poor man's suicide, the gunshot heard by Bannister played back on a homemade record. Dealing with his own daughter (Loretta Young) isn't so easy. He's kept his sordid business secret from her while she gets a posh European education on his hard-earned dime. She comes home intending to marry Dick Cheney -- don't worry! It's only David Manners -- but concerned about whether her father lives up to the Cheney's social expectations. Quizzed about his occupation, he spills everything, feeling he owes her the truth. Needless to say, she walks out on him, wanting nothing to do with his money and determined to make an honest living on her own. Her education comes in handy as she lands a position as a French tutor, but it turns out that Dad had arranged for a socialite friend who owes him a favor despite a lingering grudge (Doris Kenyon) to hire her. Meanwhile, he has to decide what to do with a defeated enemy. The man is confined in a steel cell and can only hear Bannister's voice -- the Ruling Voice of the man he's never seen. He vows revenge for his ruin, and his son's collateral death, but Bannister inexplicably lets him go. Feeling guilty for ruining his daughter's social chances, he contemplates quitting the business, but his board won't let him go. A milk company backed by the secret committee is bucking the racket, and they need Bannister to lead them in all-out war. This he does, reluctantly but ruthlessly, but the committee proves it can be just as ruthless. Through the socialite, they threaten to kidnap Bannister's daughter to force his surrender. In turn, he threatens to kidnap the socialite's small son -- or worse. Again, the younger Bannister forces the issue, browbeating Dad into capitulating. Now he's no good to the board anymore, but none of them have the stones to take him down. They have a patsy, however -- a man who could be triggered to kill at the sound of a certain voice....

Hokey, isn't it? Movie reviewers at the time already recognized Ruling Voice as an old-fashioned story. After seeing something more closely resembling reality in recent Warners pictures, they rebelled against Lee's melodrama. "None of the characters seems very real," The Film Daily decided, "and the players have difficulty in overcoming this handicap." That sounds like the film I saw. Huston is fatally pleasant and bland as the head racketeer, lacking completely the hunger of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Of his co-stars, only Dudley Digges really impresses with a performance suited to the material as a cynical, scheming underling who encourages Bannister's worst instincts but ultimately shows him no real loyalty. The rest are cardboard. The film promptly sunk into the memory hole of cinematic history, only to be salvaged by TCM and the Warner Archive. The Ruling Voice illustrates an unintended consequence of unexpected success. Warner Bros. had so completely revolutionized gangster pictures by October 1931 that they had guaranteed that one of their own pictures would be instantly obsolete.

Also salvaged was the original trailer, available as usual from

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nagisa Oshima (1932-2003)

Retired by illness since the 1999 film Gohatto, Nagisa Oshima will be remembered following his death from pneumonia as one of Japan's greatest and most controversial film directors. A key figure of Japan's own "New Wave" of Sixties cinema, Oshima gained global notoriety for his 1976 sex film In the Realm of the Senses, but probably received his widest exposure with American audiences with his 1983 David Bowie POW drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Follow this link to read my reviews of some less familiar Oshima pictures, with The Christian Revolt and Sing a Song of Sex standing out as favorites worthy of greater attention.

DJANGO'S CUT PRICE CORPSES (Anche per Django le carogne hanno un prezzo, 1971)

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is just the latest picture to invoke the global success of Sergio Corbucci's original Django movie. Almost innumerable Djangosploitation westerns followed that 1965 release, taking advantage of the fact that the name "Django" was not or could not be copyrighted to tell tales of countless cowboys who all happened to share the magical gypsy name. Inevitably, the appearance of Tarantino's Django movie has drawn some of the past Djangos to American video stores, though not as many as might have been expected had Unchained come out just a few years earlier. Taking the lead in home-video Djangosploitation is Timeless Media Group, a company that's carved a niche for itself putting TV westerns on video while releasing a decent spaghetti western collection back in 2011. Timeless has put out two double-feature DVDs which could be had dirt cheap at some chains last month. The film reviewed here, directed by Luigi Batzella under the alias of Paolo Solvay, is enjoying its official American DVD debut thanks to Timeless and Tarantino. It's a good example of how low Djangosploitation could go by the time spaghetti westerns as a whole had become increasingly silly and childish.


Filmed in incongruously grassy and fertile locations for a story set on the U.S.-Mexico border, Django's Cut Price Corpses seems most influenced by the comic Trinity films. Hence the prominence given John Desmont (in his only known movie role) playing Pickwick, a big, burly, Bud Spencer-like brawler introduced punching and tossing people about in a cantina as the film's Django (Jeff Cameron, who also did two Sartana movies) arrives. Clad in a shaggy vest that looks more Euro than American, Pickwick has an inane catch phrase ("By the great bull of Bashan!") and just about nothing else going for him. His nonlethal antics instantly reduce the show to the slapstick level, whether he's brawling interminably in the cantina or else holding a gang of gunmen on horseback at bay by shoving his saddle into their horses's flanks. He has a grudge against the Cortez brothers, who cheated him at cards, and so is willing to join Django in his pursuit of their band. To establish his badass credentials, Django orders four coffins from the town's dwarf undertaker. But bank agent Fulton (Gengher Gatti) doesn't want Django to kill the Cortezes right away; he's hoping that the bandits will somehow show him where the loot from their last big bank job is hidden so he can reclaim it... if Fulton himself is what he claims.


Batzella/Solvay, on this evidence, lacks any of the pictorial flair that so often redeems an otherwise uninspired spaghetti western. He seems incapable of establishing or maintaining any kind of dramatic momentum, as he proves immediately with Pickwick's endless cantina fight. The most that can be said for Cut Price Corpses visually is that the locations certainly look different. Perhaps the most different element of the story is the fact that the Cortez Brothers actually include a Cortez Sister. Pilar (Esmeralda Barros) wears a bandana under her sombrero and is mistaken for a boy by everyone until someone shakes her hair loose late, but the dubbed English voice, not to mention Barros's face, makes her gender pretty obvious. You don't usually get female outlaws in spaghetti westerns; usually women handle weapons only when they're revolutionaries in the "zapata" subgenre of Mexico-set stories. Pilar isn't a progressive figure, however. She isn't much of a gunfighter, and during the climactic battle Django is too chivalrous to shoot her. She ends up getting shot down by one of her own gang by mistake.

Django's chivalry typifies this picture's ultimate betrayal of the spaghetti ethos. It closes with a number of plot reversals designed to leave the heroes looking as goody-good as possible. So Fulton isn't a potentially ambiguous bank agent but a lawman who happens to have the bounty money for the Cortez brood to hand to Django. And Django isn't a bounty hunter at all, but only pursued the Cortezes, and tried to call their attention to him with his purchase of the coffins, because they had kidnapped his fiancee. He gives the bounty money to Pickwick, at which point you might well see the whole film as a great bull. That's Djangosploitation, folks: use the magic name and people would watch just about anything. Count me as one of the suckers if you must, but I write it off as a learning experience, and anyway the disc was on sale.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

On the Big Screen: ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

The Academy gets to nominate up to ten movies for Best Picture under its new rules, but there are still only five Best Director nominees. For that reason, the Best Picture nominees are divided by many Oscar-watchers into two tiers, with only those whose directors were nominated assumed to have a real chance for the big prize. Not since 1989's Driving Miss Daisy has the director of the Academy's Best Picture not even been nominated in his own category. Kathryn Bieglow's Zero Dark Thirty was considered one of the Best Picture front runners until the Oscar nominations were announced on January 10. The film received a Best Picture nomination but Bigelow herself, whose previous effort, 2009's The Hurt Locker, earned her the first Best Director award won by a woman, did not get nominated in her own right. It's been rumored that Bigelow was being punished personally, just as Paul Thomas Anderson was presumably punished for offending Scientology, for appearing to endorse torture in her new film about the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden. The way I saw it, Zero Dark Thirty portrays torture as an arguably necessary but certainly not sufficient ingredient in bagging the world's most wanted terrorist. The torture shown in the movie was not enough to nail Osama's location in Pakistan, and it should be borne in mind that Mark Boal's screenplay was first written while bin Laden was still at large. Were he still at large now, many viewers might well assume from a different version of Zero Dark Thirty that torture accomplishes nothing. Now that Boal and Bigelow have caught up with events, many people can't help inferring that writer and director consider torture to be necessary, effective and right. Bigelow's tone makes the film a rorschach blot that draws out each viewer's preconceptions. The director herself aims for a naturalistically neutral tone, neither handwringing nor triumphant. We may still be too close to events for some people to tolerate or even understand such a presentation. Many of us still want to know what side Bigelow's on, and many of those can't accept that she may not choose to take a side. A case might be made that she had to take a side, and that if torture isn't explicitly condemned the film has endorsed it. Whether that case would convince everyone is unlikely, but enough people are angered by what they see -- or fail to see -- that Zero Dark Thirty may not be appraised in purely cinematic terms for some time.

It's possible that the film's political critics focus so much on what Boal and Bigelow say or don't say about torture that they miss what the creators seem to be saying about their overall subject, the hunt for bin Laden. The broader view, however, is less neutral than deeply ambivalent. This is not a cheerleading movie unless the viewer assumes that Maya, Jessica Chastain's composite character at the film's center, is meant as an unconditional hero. Chastain gives a heroic performance, climaxing both 2012 as a year of aggressive female characters in cinema and her own meteoric rise since first earning notice in Terence Malick's Tree of Life a year earlier. But the heroism seems exaggerated in a deliberate way, as if writer, director and actress all want us to think twice about the way Maya curses and blusters and vows to "kill" bin Laden or "smoke" other terrorists, or is called a "killer" by colleagues. Unlike her cinematic peers of 2012, Maya is not an action heroine. She never fires a shot in the picture; when terrorists fire on her car in Pakistan she can do nothing than crouch below her bulletproof windshield and reverse the vehicle back into her compound. She may be the mastermind, but it takes the muscle of Navy SEALS, who may as well be her puppets, to actually kill her target, though she gets to declare victory by identifying Osama's corpse. Interestingly, we never get a full shot of the man; all we see is a beard and a nose, as if we as well as the whole world has to take Maya's word that the SEALS have hit what they call the "jackpot." I don't mean that Bigelow is somehow implying that the dead man isn't bin Laden, but she is reinforcing the way this has become Maya's personal quest and vendetta, at a potential expense invoked by the sort of character we're usually programmed to dislike, a male superior who questions Maya's priorities. This character asks a fair question: with new threats to the "homeland" from apparent freelance terrorists, how important was it by 2010 -- how much was it worth in resources -- to get the apparently isolated bin Laden? It would be easy to say that Maya must be right because she's the protagonist, but we know what a film where Maya is unambiguously right would look and sound like, and Zero Dark Thirty doesn't look or sound like that. This questioning attitude toward the hunt for Osama persists as a theme even after it could no longer be underscored by his survival despite all efforts. But some observers clearly believe that the film doesn't do enough questioning about the overall War on Terror, and their attitude is best expressed by one of the movie's own interrogators: an incomplete truth will be treated as a lie. That could be said about any film allegedly based on fact, but some facts will always matter more, and their omission offend more, than others, depending on the observer. Eventually these things will matter less and the film will be judged on something closer to its own terms.

Zero Dark Thirty is an epic procedural told in a restrained pictorial style that might strike some aesthetic critics as cold if not for Chastain's fervor. The procedural format takes us away from the film's early focus on torture as Maya and her colleagues must weigh clues and make guesses that bring them closer to the compound in Abbotabad. Even early on trickery seems to matter more than torture; the prisoner whose torture is portrayed most extensively finally opens up after the interrogators tell him (untruthfully) that he had already begun talking the day before but can't remember because he'd suffered from sleep deprivation. "Tradecraft" rather than torture is the film's real subject, the latter shown as part of the former. The dry procedural material is supplemented by some pure suspense scenes -- the kind when you can tell something bad is going to happen but you're not sure what. We also get short snippets of the Khobar Towers and London terror attacks to remind us that the bad guys remain an active threat. Some will feel that such scenes stack the deck in favor of Maya and her way of doing things, especially after it becomes a matter of personal revenge for her, but the questions Boal and Bigelow mean to raise about whether Maya's mission really solves the problem should persist for anyone who watches the film thoughtfully. Zero Dark Thirty respects its audiences' intelligence -- whether it respects history remains subject to fierce debate -- and the response to it suggests that many viewers aren't used to such a film. It'd be a shame if such a response cost Bigelow a chance at another Oscar, but while this is a compelling picture it may not endure as memorably as some of her previous films, apart from Chastain's performance, because of its relative lack of the action that had been her strong suit. It's neither Bigelow's best film nor the best film I've seen from 2012, but it's a strong picture just the same, and history rather than contemporary perceptions or prejudices will determine its ultimate worth.

Now Playing: JAN. 12-13, 1933

The Palace in Milwaukee proves, or attempts to, that documentaries can draw the crowds as well as fiction features.

The second feature is fiction, however: an independent picture about a country girl who falls for a big-city politician only to sue him for -- you guessed it -- breach of promise. TCM reports that there's a happy ending despite everything, or at least we can expect one after the heroine does some jail time. So don't say that people can get away with everything in Pre-Code cinema!

Friday is the big day for new releases in Milwaukee and here's a page full of Friday the 13th attractions from the Sentinel:

Let's take a closer look at some of these pictures. This one is probably the most familiar to modern movie buffs:

Cantor was a Ziegfeld Follies star from Broadway who hit big in movies starting with 1930's Whoopee! and was Samuel Goldwyn's star comedian until 1936. His films are peculiar for the contrivances arranged so he could perform at least one number in blackface, but Cantor's default mode is wimpy but quick-witted, and his films remain entertaining despite their occasionally offensive eccentricities.

Jim Tully was a writer who rose to fame after years as a tramp with tales of his tough past and the milieu he moved through as well as gossipy celebrity profiles. Laughter in Hell is a Universal picture directed by the prolific Edward L. Cahn, best known now for his poverty-row sci-fi pictures from the 1950s, some of which prefigure George Romero's films with their visions of mindless hordes on the march. Pat O'Brien kills his wife and her lover and ends up on a chain gang run by the dead man's vengeful brother. He ends up a fugitive from the chain gang but has a happier ending than others in that predicament.

In some theaters the movie takes second place to the stage show. Here's the Riverside, for example:

From the TCM synopsis, Carole Lombard isn't such a bad girl in this Columbia picture as the ad copy suggests, but that's par for the Pre-Code course. No More Orchids is available on DVD as part of a Lombard box set you can order online.

At the Wisconsin:

One of the things that makes the Pre-Code era an exceptional one is that Ralph Bellamy, doomed to play an archetypal loser not much later, could often get the girl in pictures like this Fox film. Director Hamilton Macfadden helmed some of Warner Oland's early Charlie Chan pictures and acted in some of Sidney Toler's. Of the vaudevillians I know nothing.