Sunday, March 31, 2013

THE AWFUL DR. ORLOFF (Gritos en la noche, 1962)

Fifty years on, I'm sure I'm not the first observer to ask what the point is of having a minion do your kidnapping for you when you have to go with him on his errands. Why have a minion if he can't take care of business while you do your all-important experimentation in the comfort of your own lair? Instead, Dr. Orloff (Howard Vernon) has to hang around outside the homes of beautiful young so he can guide his minion, Morpho (Ricardo Valle) through the streets by tapping on the cobblestones with his cane. Morpho's very prominent eyes appear to be of no use to him, so how much use can he be for the doctor, who went to the trouble of faking Morpho's death by execution, in his former capacity as a prison doctor, just so Morpho could be his minion? Maybe Orloff fears that the targeted women could beat him up. Yet he's quite capable of slipping one a mickey when it's convenient, but on the other hand he's not observant enough to notice when the victim, having noticed the obvious ploy, doesn't bother drinking the stuff. Most likely Orloff knows his limitations, some of the time.

Orloff would become a magic word (as would Morpho) in the universe of Jess Franco, who made his first international success writing and directing Gritos en la noche and would litter many subsequent movies with Orloffs and Morphos the way spaghetti western producers littered the Old West with Djangos. For Franco it was a gimmick and a fetish at the same time; that's why exploitation cinema fascinates us. With The Awful Dr. Orloff (so named, I presume, for its U.S. pairing with The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock) Franco aspires to place his personal stamp on familiar archetypes. The basic story is old news but also very recent. Orloff needs to experiment on his lovely young victims to cure his disfigured daughter. It had to take tremendous self-confidence in one's own personal vision to tell such a story so soon after Georges Franju had told it in Eyes Without a Face (1959) and Giorgio Ferroni had in Mill of the Stone Women (1960). The idea goes back further, of course, at least as far as Wallace Fox's The Corpse Vanishes (1942), though in that Monogram epic Bela Lugosi -- whose contemptuous attitude toward minions is echoed in Orloff's treatment of Morpho -- is trying to cure his wife rather than his daughter. So the idea is nothing new, and it was up to Franco to make it fresh.

While Franco benefits from the black-and-white cinematography of Godofredo Pacheco, it's the music he uses that really distinguishes Orloff from the field. Despite the Belle Epoque setting, the score by Jose Pagan and Antonio Ramirez Angel is discordantly modern and eclectic, heavy on percussion but also haunted with weird whistling effects. It would make you take notice even if Franco wasn't doing his job. His own special contribution, I suppose, is a modern infusion of fetishism and just plain sleaze. For those countries that would tolerate them, he includes a handful of topless shots of captive women. Scenes of women chained and behind bars are the most obvious signs (apart from the villain names) that this otherwise antique-looking item is a Jess Franco film. He may not truly have come into his own until he began working regularly in color, but his personal touch is already present here.

Typical of Franco also, I suppose, is the transcendence of hackneyed plotting by evocative imagery. As in many future films, Orloff takes place in a world of idiot cops and reporters. Conversations at police headquarters are often the low points of Franco films, and Orloff sets the tone by giving us a dense hero in Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin). Franco milks the final reel for suspense by highlighting Tanner's stupidity. His girlfriend (Diana Lorys) has set herself up as bait for the kidnapper/killer, seen through Orloff's attempt to slip her a mickey, and pretended to pass out so she can be taken to his lair. She has hastily written Tanner a note explaining her ploy and sent a messenger to deliver it. To Franco's credit, he gives Tanner a reason to ignore the note. All through the picture, idiots and crazy people have been plaguing him with false clues and fake confessions. When a messenger hands him the note without saying who it's from, he assumes it's another crank at work. It's not until he's about to go to bed that night that he bothers reading it and finally rushes to the rescue. Fortunately the girl is not so competent that Tanner has nothing to do. In the end the damsel has to be in distress; that's part of the ritual. You could call this mockery of stupid authority figures or just stupid writing. But there's something undeniably compelling about the imagery, even if little is original in it. Like his peers (Jean Rollin, Paul Naschy and his collaborators) Franco understood the captivating power of gothic imagery and animating gothic ideas, obviously being captivated by them himself. Even the absurd Morpho, who looks like a hybrid of Christopher Lee's Dracula and his Frankenstein Monster, plus fake eyeballs, is indisputably compelling. You can't take your eyes off him, even if only because you keep expecting the actor to crash into furniture or trip and fall. He's creepy in the old manner of the dehumanized horrors of such films as White Zombie or Island of Lost Souls. His handicaps make him ludicrous as a minion, but something like him needs to be in such a film. And this sort of story has already been done so many times that what once may have been dismissed as mere mechanical or mercenary reproduction arguably acquires an unconscious compulsive logic. For a Franco fan, especially, Orloff can seem like a film that has to exist, or can't help existing. For a more objective auteurist, the film's true subject may be the need, simultaneously commercial and psychological, to tell the story, or our need to have the story told over again.

Postscript: Jess Franco has died at age 82 following a stroke suffered last week. Follow this link for this blog's reviews of Franco films, with more likely to come in the near future.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Gabriel Over the White House: Now Playing, MARCH 29, 1933

Less than one month after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, media mogul William Randolph Hearst and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio present their fantasy of what a new President ought to do.

Directed by Gregory La Cava, Gabriel Over the White House is one of 1933's most retroactively disturbing pictures and perhaps the year's most overt expression of a widespread longing for strongman government bordering on dictatorship from which most people (including Hearst, who soon turned against FDR) quickly retreated. Reportedly it was too strong even for its time, at least in its original form. Cinema czar Will Hays ordered last-minute cuts of material presumably even more provocative than what we have left. Meanwhile, Hearst heavily promoted this picture, one of his Cosmopolitan productions released in collaboration with  M-G-M. The Hearst-owned Milwaukee Sentinel ran a serial novelization of the story. A rival paper, the Journal, ran this review; the reviewer didn't hold the film's paternity against it.

Gabriel's fantasy has a constraint built in. The film's premise is that only divine intervention can give the country the leadership it needs. Until then, President Judd Hammond (Walter Huston) is little more than a boob, largely indifferent to the nation's pressing problems. He becomes a changed man after miraculously surviving a car wreck, but it's a kind of mixed miracle once it dawns on us that Hammond maybe didn't really survive. Instead, and to justify the title, an aide speculates that the President has been possessed by none other than the Archangel Gabriel, who for some reason has a special interest in the United States. Advertisement and review alike describe the transformed Hammond as "of the people;" in fact he is a virtual dictator, cutting "red tape" like so many Gordian Knots. Such leadership is needed not just to kickstart the economy but to deal with the problem of organized crime. The movie blames immigrants for much of the gangster plague, and in a brutally symbolic scene a number of gang leaders are executed by firing squad at Ellis Island (if I recall right) while numerous others are deported under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty. Despite everything, a belief in limited government still prevails insofar as Hammond, like the dictators of the Roman Republic, has a specific mandate for action. When his mission is accomplished, culminated by the signing of an international peace treaty (after the great powers are brought to the table by a U.S. weapons buildup) the guiding spirit leaves the body and Hammond drops dead. Gabriel is a film impossible to appraise in conventional good-or-bad terms since it is so much a document of its time, more a political than an artistic statement. It's one of 1933's most fascinating cinematic events.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

DVR Diary: THE PAGAN (1929)

Things changed fast during the conversion from silence to sound. Attitudes changed -- the Depression had a lot to do with that -- which is why I don't often include silent movies in the Pre-Code Parade. Here's an example: Pre-Code's idea of a noble savage is Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan; silent cinema's idea, at least as demonstrated in The Pagan, is Ramon Novarro. That's a big difference, and it reflects a changing idea of the primitive. "Nature in the raw is seldom mild" was a catchphrase of the Pre-Code era -- it was an advertising slogan for Lucky Strike cigarettes. The men who became stars in those years were rugged, violent types -- Cagney, Gable, Weissmuller in his special niche. "Caveman" was a word often used to describe such personalities. M-G-M's Tarzan lived in a world of perpetual violence; animals were always out to eat him or Jane, or simply to kill them for the savage pleasure of it. Part of Weissmuller's appeal for Pre-Code (i.e. Depression)  audiences, apart from his being a stud, was Tarzan's obvious prowess as a provider. Ramon Novarro's Henry Shoesmith could hardly be more different in his indifference to basic economics. He's no weakling, as W. S. Van Dyke's picture will prove, but whereas for Tarzan the primitive world is a jungle, for Shoesmith it's a paradise. He's a half-caste, orphaned son of a white father and native mother -- the opposite combination was probably unacceptable to contemporary audiences -- and heir to a sizable plantation on a South Seas island. He takes after his mom, a title tells us, which means he lives like a native, loinclothed, negligent of the general store his father had built, flourishing on the fat of the land. And the film asks: why not? For Van Dyke Pagan was a follow-up to White Shadows in the South Seas, his collaboration with documentarian Robert Flaherty, and like that film this one was largely shot on location to picturesque effect. Like White Shadows, Pagan portrays island life as innocent and unworldly and menaced by the "white shadow" of commercial exploitation. In Pagan the shadow takes the especially menacing form of an earringed Donald Crisp as Slater, a trader in search of copra, the raw material for coconut oil. He has a half-caste ward, Tito (Dorothy Janis), whom he's zealously trying to civilize and Christianize. Slater is scandalized at Shoesmith's neglect of his business and his backslide into paganism, and is even more alarmed at his obvious interest in Tito, as is Madge (Renee Adoree), Henry's American would-be girlfriend. It's a one-sided culture clash, since Henry isn't interested in clashing. He just doesn't get Slater's attitude. "I don't get angry just because you're different," he chides the trader. In fact, he goes overboard to be accommodating in his naivete. Slater wants to buy Henry's coconuts to harvest them for copra, but Henry lets him have them for free. He has too many and he'd get sick if he tried to consume them all himself.

Henry does take some of Slater's advice to heart. The trader holds out the possibility that Henry might win Tito's hand if he becomes more of a responsible businessman. Inspired, Henry briefly turns into something like Harold Lloyd, bumbling with bolts of cloth as women wait impatiently in his store. He still doesn't really get it, however, since he lets everyone buy on credit. After all, he just borrows more from the bank whenever he needs supplies -- but little does he realize that a trap has been set for him. Slater is the banker, and when the loans come due he's not content simply to "write it in the book" as Henry does with his customers. He forecloses instead, while Henry retreats with a shrug to a hut deeper inland, with Tito in tow. But Slater never seriously intended Henry to win her; he wants the girl for himself, despite Madge's warning that Henry is half-native, and "natives take their women." Slater proves good at taking himself, but Madge (who sees the hopelessness of her own situation but still likes Henry and Tito) has an answer for that, too. Henry is also half-white, of course, and "white men fight for their women." A distinction without a difference? Perhaps. Either way, it means that Henry and Slater are going to have it out in a wobbly rowboat as the sharks circle closer....

Only three years separate The Pagan from Tarzan the Ape Man, also directed by Van Dyke, but the cultural gulf seems far more vast. Nothing may illustrate that more starkly than M-G-M's decision to promote The Pagan as the debut of Ramon Novarro's singing voice. For the most part, the vocal track is pretty poorly synched to the image on screen, indicating that most of the picture was actually shot silent. This sparked some suspicion that Novarro, like his imagined contemporary Lina Lamont and his real-life peer Richard Barthelmess, didn't do his own singing. But viewers familiar with the look of part-talkies will notice at least two moments, both brief, where the speed of the film changes and Novarro actually appears to be singing "live" for the camera. One of these moments comes toward the end of the clip shown below, uploaded by frankieparis16.

This may not be your idea of what a "Pagan Love Song" sounds like, but it does express silent Hollywood's ideal of idyllic "pagan" life, at least as lived in the South Pacific. That idyllic ideal persisted into the Pre-Code idea and beyond in films like Bird of Paradise, but for Depression audiences the dystopia of Africa and the myth of an animalistic hunter-provider proved more compelling. With that change came a turnover in male talent that was perhaps most pronounced at Novarro's studio, where many of the leading men of M-G-M's late silents -- including John Gilbert, William Haines and Buster Keaton -- were gone within five years of The Pagan. Novarro himself held out longest of this group, thanks to his versatility as an all-purpose ethnic, but by 1934 M-G-M was done with him as well, while he-man Clark Gable had become King of the lot if not of all Hollywood and brutish Wallace Beery was one of the studio's biggest stars. Sound and the Depression had a lot to do with this, as silent archetypes became obsolete and newly revealed voices undermined actors' images. On its own merits The Pagan is an entertaining oddity, likely to be embraced for its criticism of capitalist values, but the film's real value is as a document of the fantasies of a specific moment in American history. It seems archaic now, after 84 years, but it probably seemed archaic after 4 years, and not just because it didn't talk. Nevertheless, it tells us something, depending on how we look at it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Now Playing: MARCH 26, 1933

The shadows are lengthening as indignation over cinematic immorality spreads slowly across the country. In the news this week, Dr. Eastman of Chicago tells a Milwaukee audience that censorship won't solve the problem because it doesn't reach the root of it. Rather than edit questionable films, there should be some way to prevent them from being made.

Meanwhile, on with the show! After three weeks The 7th Commandment takes its leave of the Garden theater, to be replaced with a title familiar to fans of the time, though the content seems to be different from what old-timers remember.

Once upon a time The Face on the Barroom Floor was a ballad telling the sad tale of an artist ruined by lost love and alcohol. Charlie Chaplin parodied the poem in a 1914 Keystone short, but the film advertised above is a perhaps-straightfaced, perhaps-campy melodrama -- the advertising definitely leans toward camp -- in which Bramwell ("He went out for a little walk!") Fletcher's life goes to hell when he gives in to peer pressure and gets drunk at a wild party. If it lives up to the ad it'll be a gem.

A couple of more familiar titles open together at the Warner.

Here's my review of Barbara Stanwyck's woman-in-prison picture. I haven't reviewed Lawyer Man but I have seen it. William Powell may be hard to by as a shyster who rose from the slums and forgot his ethnic roots and virtues, but the movie's entertaining enough regardless.

Star teams are reunited in two releases this week, starting with the Wisconsin.

Never heard of this team? Neither had I, but Bad Girl, Dunn and Eilers's first teaming, was enough of a picture to earn Frank Borzage a Best Director Oscar. Sailor's Luck was the fourth teamup, but they only made one more.

Which team was more popular, Dunn & Eilers or Sidney & Murray?

This is the sixth and last film in a comedy series dating back to 1926. The Cohens and Kellys films are an early milestone of Hollywood multiculturalism, being the adventures of Jewish and Irish families uneasily united by marriage, the comedy focusing on the misadventures of the antagonistic fathers played by Sidney and Murray. I've never seen any of these pictures -- has anyone lately?

Finally, a drifter unwittingly gets involved in a car-stealing racket and falls in love along the way.

The title seems to summarize Dr. Eastman's feelings about Hollywood as a whole.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN (Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica, 1971)

In his imperfect English, Franco Nero describes this film from the late director Damiano Damiani as the "most sold" movie in the history of Italian cinema. What he means is that Confessions of a Police Captain played in more countries around the world than any previous Italian film. This fact must gall him, since he reports that the producers never paid him for his work. That may explain why he didn't do his own dubbing for the English-language edition. The effect is mixed, since Nero is one of the few Italian actors whose own voice was readily recognized by American audiences. But doing without Nero's voice preempts any confusion over why his character alone has an accent while his co-star Martin Balsam, doing his own dubbing, clearly doesn't. Nero encouraged Damiani to cast Balsam after both star and producer had rejected Anthony Quinn and Ben Gazzara -- the latter had already committed to the film -- because both actors insisted on changes in the story and its location. Nero had seen Balsam in Catch-22 and other films and thought he looked Sicilian. It was a good break for Balsam, who could depend on work in Europe for years afterward, and he's a surprisingly authoritative figure in the title role. The picture itself is a potent urban tragedy, a portrayal of a government so rotten with corruption that two essentially honest (or at least good) men are unable to trust one another in the fight against crime.

Balsam is Captain (more correctly, Commisario) Bonavia, first seen paying a visit to a lockup for the criminally insane, where he orders the release of an atypically fastidious prisoner. Only days later, the ex-prisoner shoots up an office building, dying soon afterward of wounds inflicted by the guards. Bonavia seems to have expected this to happen, but he's surprised to learn that one person in particular wasn't killed and wasn't even there. He has to assume that the apparent target, one D'Amrbosio, was tipped off to the impending attack. Meanwhile, newly arrived assistant prosecutor Traini (Nero) finds the situation fishy as he learns more about the circumstances of the con's release. He can guess that Bonavia is up to something, but the reason remains a mystery. Meanwhile, Bonavia regards anyone else on the case as an impediment or a threat.

Bonavia and Traini circle one anoter warily and with increasing hostility as Traini sets up a meeting with the otherwise-elusive D'Ambrosio to learn why the ex-con or someone higher up would want to kill him. Finally Bonavia has to put his cards on the table, explaining to Traini his grudge against D'Ambrosio. It has to do with his failure to convict D'Ambrosio for the murder of a union agitator ten years ago, mainly because an eyewitness to the killing, a shepherd boy, had "accidentally" fallen off a cliff. D'Ambrosio controls the workforce on corrupt construction projects and is tight with local businessmen and politicians. That makes him virtually untouchable for Bonavia; hence his recourse to assassination, relying on a man whose family had a grudge against D'Ambrosio and whose sister (Marilu Tolo) has information on D'Amrbosio's more lethal activities. When Bonavia takes her into his personal custody, it only makes him look worse in Traini's eyes, since the prosecutor still suspects more venal motives on the Commisario's part. The gears of justice only seem to tighten the noose around Bonavia's neck, thanks in part to Traini's naivete, until the police captain feels compelled to take even more drastic steps to secure justice ...

Confessions may be the most pessimistic -- or cynical, depending on how you see it -- of Damiani's crime films, though it leaves open an actually strong possibility that Traini may finally do the right thing. It leaves you questioning what he could accomplish, however, given the systematic, self-reinforcing and demoralizing corruption in Sicily. The movie is clear kin to Italy's tough-cop movies from the same decade but is clearly more ambivalent about the apparent necessity of cops bending or breaking rules than the average Maurizio Merli or Tomas Milian vehicle. Balsam does a lot to sustain the ambivalence, avoiding the self-righteous hysteria we might expect from his role. When he blows his stack, it's in frustration with the system, while his vendetta against D'Ambrosio is a more cold-blooded affair, explained in matter-of-fact fashion. There's a growing resignation in his character, again best expressed by the actor's restraint when he realizes that Traini has unwittingly doomed another character. You remain convinced throughout of his authentic moral indignation, but it's Balsam's underplaying, his refusal to let you think his character is crazy, that keeps the Commisario a sympathetic and ultimately tragic figure. I can only judge Nero fairly by his physical presence in the English edition but Damiani again exploits a certain earnest shallowness he can make the actor project, as he did in a similar role in Day of the Owl. It's to Nero's credit that he liked working with Damiani even when the roles weren't flattering. I'd like to see The Case is Closed, the prison movie they made together between this and How to Kill a Judge, but I don't know if it's available in any English language form. I do have How to Kill a Judge at hand, so look forward to a review of that title in the near future.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

DVR Diary: PORT OF SHADOWS (Quai des brumes, 1938)

The French were in Vietnam long before us Americans, so it's only fair that France gives us cinema's first troubled Vietnam veteran. To be honest, I don't know for certain that Jean Gabin's character in Marcel Carne's crime drama is the first, but he's got us beat by more than a generation. Jean had some bad experiences with the colonial army in Tonkin and has been living in a kind of fog ever since. Back in France, he's deserted from the army but needs a change of clothes. He hitchhikes to Le Havre, nearly wrecking his ride by making it swerve to avoid a dog in the road. He's tender but tough, we'll learn. In the port city, he ends up in a waterfront tavern where he meets a depressed artist and a pretty young woman (Michele Morgan) and gets caught between some gangsters and an eccentric old man (Michel Simon) with an axe to grind about music. Quite conveniently, the artist commits suicide by going out into the water and bequeaths Jean his clothes and his identity papers, while the bartender wraps Jean's uniform around a rock and sinks them, hoping to hide the evidence of desertion. It doesn't quite work, and when the uniform pops up along with a body other than the artist's, investigators suspect a soldier in a gangland murder. Jean has no patience with the gangsters and spends a lot of time slapping around their leader, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), whose bluster barely conceals some essential weakness. After a while, however, you'll wonder who the real bad guy is as we learn more about the ties between the Morgan and Simone characters. Jean falls for Morgan and Simon doesn't like it. But as the old man's menace dominates the story we'd all be wise not to forget Lucien's sulking, simmering rage.

Quai des Brunes often feels as if it was made by a French branch of Warner Bros. Gabin's take-no-crap toughness and redeeming romantic streak wouldn't be out of place on the actual Warner lot, while the short-lived plot detail of the suicidal artist may have been intentionally reminiscent of The Petrified Forest. Rather than imitating the Americans, however, Gabin had been setting a new standard for doomed antiheroes since his international breakthrough Pepe le Moko in 1936, and you could argue that his movies had some thematic influence on Warners' second major gangster cycle. The film as a whole is atmospherically gritty and romantically tragic in proto-noirish style. It has several strong set pieces, including an encounter between Jean and Lucien on bumper cars and a scene of Simon menacing Morgan set to some lovely music reminding us of Simon's pretentious tastes while the action belies his pretension. Simon and Brasseur make nicely contrasting villains, one burly and increasingly brutish, the other deceptively fussy and wussy. Overall, Port of Shadows can stand comparison with contemporary crime-film classics from the U.S. If you like them, you'll like this.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Here's an unpretentious Hollywood western from the genre's golden era. Jesse Hibbs will never be mentioned alongside the major western directors of the Fifties like Mann, Boetticher and Daves, but he was a western specialist for the most part -- his best-known work is most likely the Audie Murphy-as-himself biopic To Hell and Back -- before becoming a TV director in the Sixties. The cast interested me more than the director. John Payne has fresh credibility as a tough-guy star with the rediscovery of Phil Karlson's 99 River Street, while Dan Duryea needs no introduction as a reliable villain. At his side is Lee Van Cleef in one of his more substantial early roles. The story, for which two writers share credit while Borden Chase did some doctoring, is a fairly typical town-tamer affair given a little extra grit by Payne. He plays Jeff Harder, an underachieving Army sergeant with a habit of starting brawls in saloons -- he doesn't like cheating. After getting his ass kicked in one such brawl, he's given a choice between the guardhouse and a mission to expedite railroad construction in Laramie WY. Widespread malingering has slowed progress and local business interests are complicit in it -- they don't want the workers and their regular paychecks to leave town. Among these businessmen is Jim Shanessy (Duryea), the archetypal corrupt saloonkeeper, who happens also to be an old crony of Harder's. Their friendly reunion is short-lived, however, once Harder realizes that Shanessy is the power behind the construction slowdowns. He also happens to resent the Harder gang's attempts to bribe him, and he doesn't like Ace, Shanessy's enforcer (Van Cleef)  on general principles.

After inspecting the construction site and beating workgang leader Pike Murphy (Charles Horvath) into temporary submission, Harder realizes that only drastic steps will restore discipline and get the rails laid on schedule. Authorized by the army to take any steps necessary, he goes over the head of Graham (Barton McLane), the men's actual employer, and fires the entire construction gang, allowing them to return to work only on his terms. This move scandalizes the town fathers, since no income for the workers means no sales for them. At a public meeting they urge Harder to rescind his order. He doesn't back down, telling them, "I don't think there's an honest businessman in this town." Here's another instance in which westerns seemed to subtly challenge entrepreneurial values. It isn't the first time I've seen a Fifties western in which town fathers hinder a hero's town-taming because they like the untamed folks's money as much as anyone else's. If these films aren't challenging entrepreneurship itself, they do suggest that there are higher values than making money, and that civilization wouldn't get very far if people cared only for profit. Harder chides Shanessy at one point, noting that with his brains he could get rich honestly. "Not as rich and not as fast" is Shanessy's answer. More than many contemporary westerns, Rails hails women as a civilizing force. Taking advantage of Wyoming history -- the territory was the first to grant considerable civil equality to women, Harder tries to secure Shanessy's conviction on a murder charge -- he'd had Ace kill Harder's deputy -- by seating an all-female jury in a criminal trial for the first time in American history. Before this, the town's all-male juries had routinely acquitted Shanessy's men. It looks like the deck is still stacked against Harder when one of the jurors is Lou Carter (Mari Blanchard), Shanessy's partner in his saloon. It seems unlikely that someone with such a conflict of interests would be allowed on the jury, but she surprises everyone by voting to convict Shanessy. If anything, the film is too quick to have her emphasize that she did this for sound legal and moral reasons, and not to take over the saloon. By now she's become Harder's love interest so I guess she has to be a good girl.

Being a town western, Rails lacks the sweep of many of the decade's best westerns. Hibbs's focus is on personal confrontations, and he invests the several showdowns of Payne and Van Cleef with a decent crackle of hostile energy. The biggest spectacle in the film is its use of trains. Shanessy's men jump Harder and dump him on an outbound train so he can't testify at the trial; when Harder comes to, he orders the engineer to back the train all the way to Laramie. Later, Harder and Shanessy fight on a train on a collision course with another engine on the same track; once again the train goes backwards to get out of harm's way while the other train brakes. There's no real revelation here, though Payne readily projects a take-no-crap attitude and Van Cleef shows his promise. Duryea is relatively uninspired in a too-generic villain role, neither too crazy nor too torn over his failing friendship with the hero. Rails Into Laramie goes in a few interesting directions but never quite escapes a tolerable mediocrity. Tolerable counts for something, though, and there's enough going on in the picture that western fans won't think their time wasted.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: TOPAZE (1933)

The National Board of Review named Harry D'Abbadie D'Arrast's continental comedy the best American film of 1933, ranking it ahead of not only Cavalcade, the eventual Oscar winner, but also the films we think of eighty years later as that year's best: 42nd Street, King Kong, The Invisible Man, etc. None of those three, in fact, made the Board's cut. Some that did make the cut are even more obscure than Cavalcade or Topaze. Even I have to plead ignorance of such worthies as Papa Loves Mama and Three-Cornered Moon. Standards change over time, of course, and many people now consider Cavalcade (a film I still haven't seen) as one of the least-worthy Oscar winners. Topaze wasn't nominated in any Oscar category, and its selection by the Board seemed to surprise many people at the time. Given its mixed reception in 1933, it's hard to say whether Topaze passes the current test of time unless you actually watch it.

While not aggressively or transgressively Pre-Code in terms of content, Topaze has that certain blithe amorality we identify with the period. D'Arrast filmed Ben Hecht's adaptation of an English translation of a 1928 French play eventually filmed twice over by its author, Marcel Pagnol. On Broadway the title role was played by Frank (Wizard of Oz) Morgan. At RKO it became a vehicle for John Barrymore. He is Professor Topaze, a chemist by vocation and a private school teacher by profession. We hear of him before we see him, as the Baron Latour Latour (Reginald Mason) recommends him as a tutor for a relative of the woman of his house, Coco (Myrna Loy). This house isn't the Baron's own, however, for Coco is only his mistress. At home he must share a bed not only with his heavygoing wife, but with her dog and their brat of a son. Home is in an uproar because this same Professor Topaze has given the brat a bunch of failing grades. That simply isn't done when someone like the Baron pays so much for the boy's education.

At last we see the Professor in his element. His nature is hard to grasp at first. Our first impression is of a slightly pompous idealist, determined to drill into his pupils the idea that dishonesty never pays. The Latour Latour brat actually seems realistic rather than stupid when he disagrees, but he's also obviously a brat, using a noisemaker to disrupt Topaze's lectures. Only later does it become more obvious that we're supposed to see Topaze as a naif or a plain fool. Defending his grading policy when confronted by the Baroness, he is fired on the spot. He lands unexpectedly on his feet, however, when the Baron decides he can use Topaze in a new project. Latour is manufacturing a new brand of sparkling water and wants a reputable chemist to endorse it. The problem is that any reputable chemist would reject the stuff. Latour has just turned away a Professor Baum (frequent Barrymore stooge Luis Alberini) who has denounced the product but is clearly holding out for more money. Topaze is less worldly and more easily deceived. Latour Latour sets him up in a new laboratory -- with Coco, inexplicably, as his assistant -- and lets him develop a virtually bacteria-free product that would be prohibitively expensive to mass produce, while the company mass produces the original formula, the germy stuff that Baum had condemned as "dishwater." Promoting Topaze as the embodiment of benign science, Latour Latour even names the stuff after him. Sparkling Topaze soon becomes a ubiquitous brand name in France.

To this point, it isn't an atypical Hollywood situation: a nice guy somehow ends up a fraud. Predictably enough, the deception begins to come apart. Topaze witnesses Baum's attempt to blackmail Latour Latour with a threat to publicize what he knows about Sparkling Topaze. He sees Latour Latour crush Baum by producing documents proving Baum an impostor and embezzler. The would-be blackmailer is blackmailed into silence, but in his retreat he's left behind his store-bought bottle of Sparkling Topaze and a confused Professor Topaze. How could Baum slander his noble product so? On a hunch, he subjects the bottled water to tests we've seen him conduct before on his own water. The results are dramatically different. Could it be a fluke? He invades a restaurant and performs similar tests on a glass snatched from a general's hand. The results are just as bad. Topaze is horrified. He hallucinates neon signs denouncing him and other disasters in a typical Hollywood nightmare montage. Fortunately, he has one supporter in Coco, who has also grown sick of Latour Latour's lies. She was humiliated earlier when the Baron, surprized by his wife's appearance at his favorite restaurant, passed Coco off as Mme. Topaze. Topaze himself was embarassed on her behalf without understanding why the Baron made up such a story. It's up to Coco to set him straight on a lot of things, but under her compassionate tutelage a transformation begins. The Baron has betrayed their honor; they take their revenge by outplaying him in his own game of blackmail. Topaze becomes a more domineering businessman, with Baum now his flunky. He exploits his celebrity, making visitors wait to see him until they feel the appropriate awe. From the Baron he demands  a one-third share in the company. If he doesn't get it, he'll deliver to the Baroness Coco's full confession of her affair with the Baron. Triumphant, Topaze returns to his old school to deliver an oration and bestow some academic awards. Learning that the Latour Latour brat is to get the top honor, he stages a decisive humiliation for the boy to show the other students that here, at least, honesty will be rewarded.

You'll notice it isn't rewarded outside the school. If Hecht and D'Arrast (not to mention Pagnol) meant us to assume that Topaze would use his new power in the company to ensure the manufacture of his safe sparkling water, we definitely have no proof in the picture that he does so. As far as we know, the professor is content to live off the ill-gotten revenue from the Baron's bad water -- no one besides Baum has complained about it, as far as we can tell. In Topaze the hero's realization of his role in a fraud is the cue for his transformation into a more worldy and masterly man, as illustrated by Barrymore's shaving off his professorial beard and getting himself more smartly tailored. The effect had to be different from Frank Morgan undergoing such a change. Insofar as Barrymore remained a matinee idol at age 50, the change couldn't help but look like the star revealing his true and brilliant nature as a handsome fashion plate worthy of the young Myrna Loy. Compare his character arc to the fraud roles played by would-be peers like Warren William. Usually, when William was exposed as a fraud the result was professional and personal ruin. He had to touch bottom before he could begin to redeem himself. Barrymore experiences a moral crisis, or at most goes through a moral scare, and that's about it. It's all uphill from there, as in all likelihood he'll get the girl if he hasn't got her already. The film ends with the couple arriving at a performance of Man, Woman and Sin, the title clearly giving Topaze ideas. I don't think I've seen a more amoral Pre-Code movie since Night Nurse ended with the friendly bootlegger having Clark Gable whacked to guarantee a happy ending.

Barrymore was still capable of a controlled performance at this point, not long before his descent into alcoholic self-parody. He's fully committed physically to Topaze's eccentric mix of meekness and pretension, setting up the contrast with the more forceful character the professor will become. A character actor in a star's body (that he soon strove to destroy), he seems comfortable in makeups and odd voices, reminding me of Hans Conreid sometimes during his orations before toning it down later. People who saw both him and Frank Morgan seemed to prefer Morgan, but Barrymore is very entertaining in the role. D'Arrast directs him well, his moving camera allowing the actor to define his character through movement as he paces up and down classroom aisles. His fondness for lateral camera movement helps keep the whole film lively. Posterity has been fair, I think, to rank King Kong, 42nd Street, et al above Topaze, but I have a suspicion that it is better than Cavalcade, at least.

Damiano Damiani (1922-2013)

I'm indebted to Ben at Breakfast in the Ruins for calling my attention to the death earlier this month of the Italian director Damiano Damiani. He was the director of A Bullet for the General, possibly the greatest Italian western not directed by Sergio Leone. He made only one other western that I know of, the Leone-produced comedy A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe, but proved himself in other genres, particularly the contemporary crime film. In Day of the Owl (aka Mafia) and The Most Beautiful Wife he shifts our attention from the glamor of violence to the impact of crime and corruption on presumably powerless women. The latter is the more radical film, and the superior one in general, for its portrayal of a woman defying a corrupt, sexist society. Those are the only Damiani films I've seen -- I don't remember seeing his Amityville Horror sequel -- but they're enough to impress me. I actually own copies of two more of his movies, and I hope now to watch at least one of them to review in his honor later this week. Until then, follow the links on the movie titles to get a sense of what Damiani was capable of.

Gian Maria Volonte in A Bullet for the General

Claudia Cardinale in Day of the Owl

Ornella Muti in The Most Beautiful Wife

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Now Playing: MARCH 17, 1933

I guess The Seventh Commandment really is the most popular movie in Milwaukee. It's staying at the Garden for a third week while 42nd Street gives up its spot at the Warner after two. Given that the Warner seems to have twice the seating capacity of the Garden, however, Commandment will have to make it through a fifth week for more people to have seen that than the Warner musical.

Taking the musical's place is a film that passed by just recently in the Pre-Code Parade.

As a reminder, here's what I wrote about this charming satire of a 1930s bridge craze.

You've read already that Lee Tracy was one of 1933's hottest actors. Here's fresh proof.

I've seen this one, too, and here's my review.

The next one I haven't seen, though I read about it in the Medveds' Hollywood Hall of Shame long ago.

The Medved book was rather unfair and mean-spirited toward a lot of movies and moviemakers, but no one's ever been in a hurry to rehabilitate this attempt to convert Kate Smith from radio to movie star. Part of the problem is the film's most notorious song, "Pickaninny's Heaven." It can be viewed on YouTube, but since I'm not allowed to embed it here, I refer you to the webpage with a reminder that you've been warned.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE STRUGGLE (1931)

When D. W. Griffith tried to join the Pre-Code Parade the public kicked him to the curb. For a generation Griffith had been the dean of directors, already a living legend for directing The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. His career had some rough patches later, but in 1930 he made a critically-acclaimed talkie debut with the biopic Abraham Lincoln. His follow-up, The Struggle, was a career killer. The reviews were humiliating. This one was typical.

Desperate for a positive blurb, Griffith and United Artists, the studio he co-founded, could find but one worth publicizing, but Eric M. Knight's rave set the tone for revisionist accounts of the film decades later.

It eventually became popular to assert that however his contemporaries condemned him for being behind the times, Griffith was actually ahead of them in some ways, anticipating Robert Altman in his overlapping of dialogue and countless future auteurs in his use of actual urban locations. It appealed to auteurists' sense of romanticism to see Griffith innovating to the end. But more people than ever can judge The Struggle for themselves now that Netflix has it available for streaming. My own verdict is a split decision: Griffith's swan song is a misunderstood, unfairly maligned, and not very good movie.

The Film Daily reviewer was especially typical in his equation of The Struggle with archaic anti-alcohol melodramas like Ten Nights in a Barroom. Such a spectacle, presumably, was the last thing a nation on the brink of repealing the "noble experiment" of Prohibition wanted to see. But if people took The Struggle as a brief for Prohibition it was through willful ignorance of intentions explicitly stated by Griffith in a text prologue. He claimed neutrality in the wet-vs.-dry debate, but few took him seriously as they saw alcohol ruin the film's hero, Jimmie (Hal Skelly). The film itself makes the more modern distinction between alcohol and alcoholism. Though the word isn't used, Jimmie is an alcoholic, and if a film about an alcoholic is a call for Prohibition, than so is Flight from just last year and every movie about alcoholics between now and 1931. On top of that, The Struggle has a very specific thesis about the alcoholism that claims Jimmie. It pointedly does not portray pre-Prohibition America as a wasteland of drunken depravity. Its prelude, set in 1911, is actually something of a joke, setting up a running gag for the whole picture about onetime celebrity and serial bride Peggy Hopkins Joyce and poking fun at Griffith's UA partner Mary Pickford (a character misnames her "Packard") while printing the legend that she, not Florence Lawrence, was the original "Biograph Girl." More to the point, the prelude shows a group of people drinking and dancing and having a good time, except maybe for one woman who gets "intoxicated." Griffith clearly milks for all the humor he can find the euphemistic outrage of her peers at this woman who does no more than babble inanely as she's led home. Intoxication! My word! Needless to say, this does not portray a nation that needed Prohibition.

Instead, Griffith claims -- his political neutrality notwithstanding -- that Prohibition has turned some people into worse alcoholics than they would have been before. Assuming that people will drink, Griffith and writer Anita Loos assert that speakeasies were more likely to serve the hard stuff than good old beer, while showing that bootleg hooch was often little more than poison. Disregarding safety standards, a bootlegger observes that we all gotta go sometime. Griffith is most neutral, if not complacent, on the question of mass lawbreaking. Nothing apart from Jimmie's plight appears to argue for closing down the speaks, yet within the picture itself Jimmie seems to be an exceptionally vulnerable figure. Alcohol isn't ruining anyone else's life as far as we can tell, not counting the collateral damage as it ruins Jimmie's. Taking the longer view, anyone who'd seen Intolerance and remembered the hostility shown there toward busybody moral reformers would not assume that Griffith was all for Prohibition.

Jimmie works in some kind of foundry as some kind of foreman with big ideas for improving productivity. He'd get drunk sometimes before marrying Florrie (Zita "Ankh-es-sen-amon" Johann) in 1922, but takes the pledge at her request. He sticks to it for years while remaining sociable with his cronies, drinking sarsaparilla in speakeasies. Curiously, he falls off the wagon on the day another worker gets laid off. He takes the poor man to the speak for a consolation snort but is urged to have one himself. He agrees, as if embarrassment at abstaining among friends had finally caught up with him. He's ready to leave after one, but when someone else offers to buy, it'd be unfriendly not to accept. Soon enough the laid-off man is long gone and Jimmie is tying one on, and it's downhill from there.

For most of its length The Struggle is more of a rout as Jimmie reels from disaster to disaster, from ruining his sister-in-law's engagement party (and humiliating his own boss) to getting conned into cashing in his $4,000 insurance policy and investing it in a fake bootlegging scheme. He appears to touch bottom when, some time after Florrie has thrown him out, he sees his family's furniture put on the street as mother and daughter are evicted from already reduced circumstances. Wandering into the empty rooms, he appears to have an epiphany as he hears a radio play the hymn "Abide With Me" across the street. We next see him begging for any honest work, and Griffith clearly wants us to think that this is the start of his recovery. Not yet: weak from malnutrition, Jimmie faints while working on a road crew and is revived only by a co-worker's flask. He doesn't make it through his first day, and soon he's a "begging bum" and the laughingstock of the neighborhood kids, cadging dimes for "a cup of coffee." When the kids tease his daughter Mary with their discovery of his panhandling, the stage is set for a Griffith finish. Mary tracks her dad to a hovel where he mumblingly flashbacks to happier days at home and work, then goes berserk as Mary gently confronts him. One last time the old master does his crosscutting trick as Jimmie chases Mary around in a manner almost reminiscent of Broken Blossoms while Florrie races down one of those authentic city streets toward the address Mary has written on a note for her. Luckily, Jimmie passes out before he can do real damage to his daughter.

And then everything turns out all right. Florrie nurses Jimmie back to health and sobriety, he gets his job back, and earns a promotion when the boss implements his efficiency scheme. The End. You really can't blame audiences for feeling disappointed at the abrupt turnaround. They didn't know how to account for it, and it's hard for us, too. Griffith skips all the scenes of confession and resolution we've come to expect from addiction movies; Jimmie just gets better and that's all there is to it. A generous reading might credit Griffith with implying that Jimmie's recovery is as tentative as it seems arbitrary, or with allowing us to infer that it could all fall apart again at any moment. But Griffith is too much the oldschool showman for us to see this as anything other than the implausibly happy ending that it seems. A more complete print might spell things out more recognizably, but while contemporary reviews report an 87 minute running time, the edition streaming on Netflix runs only 76 minutes. We're missing more than 10% of the movie Griffith released, but what's missing may have matched the dismal descriptions of early reviewers more than what we have.

Reminder: The Struggle is a Pre-Code picture.

What we have doesn't seem as primitive as hostile reviewers claimed, but it doesn't really display much directorial style, either. Its most visually clever moment comes when Griffith dissolves from the shuffling feet of the 1911 dancers to the frantic steps of higher-skirted dancers in the 1922 sequence. The location work looks fine but Griffith doesn't really do much with it apart from the tracking shot of Johann running down the street at the climax. The Struggle is really more an actors' film than a directorial showcase. Griffith trusts Skelly to put on a show and the actor delivers. He's at his best in the mid-picture drunk scenes when Jimmie is his most recklessly sociable. Skelly and his fellow actors may be improvising as they go along, and there's a dull ring of authenticity in their banter. The rest of the cast fails to impress, little Edna Hagan as Mary being particularly bad as she appears to stare straight at cue cards in search of her lines rather than at the actors playing her parents. Griffith gives us a plausible portrait of an alcoholic -- did experience contribute to it? -- but smothers it with excessive melodrama. Still, to make a portrait of an alcoholic was neither excessive nor archaic. But I suppose that Pre-Code audiences were no more comfortable with the disasters of alcoholism on screen than audiences are today. They may well have been less comfortable with the material than we are, and that may be a point against them rather than one against Griffith.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


American movie buffs will recognize Takashi Miike's film as a remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 Harakiri and wonder why anyone should remake a classic. Some Japanese fans might have felt the same way, but since both films are adaptations of a novel by Yasuhiko Tamaguchi there's no reason why you can't eventually have as many Harakiris as there are movies of, for instance, Les Miserables. My example has a point, since anyone moved by the grim portrait of oldschool poverty that even the musical version of Hugo offers should be moved similarly by either version of the Tamaguchi novel. The movie are more distinct for Japanese audiences, since they call the 1962 film Seppuku and the 2011 Ichimei. Nevertheless, the stories are the same, and I refer you to my review of Kobayashi for plot details. The two films differ in emphasis and more profoundly on the sensory level, for not only is the Miike film in color, but it was also made to be shown in 3D. It may be a virtue that you can watch it flat and not realize that you missed a dimension. Miike, often a provocateur in his prolific career, works in neoclassical mode here so you can appreciate the widescreen framing and cinematography without ducking at simulated flying gore. You get the impression that he respects the source material, both the novel and the earlier film.

The biggest difference I can see, relying on my memories of the Kobayashi film, is Miike's gimmick of the hero, Tsugumo Hanshiro (kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo XI) taking his righteous anger out on the heartless retainers of Ii with a bamboo sword similar to the one they made his hapless son-in-law Chijiiwa Motome (Eita) use to commit seppuku. This is a good idea, since Miike has stressed how torturously difficult it is to disembowel oneself with such a weapon. It creates the impression that Tsugumo wants to inflict pain rather than death on the cruel samurai and teach them a lesson in the process. Miike also stages the final battle in snowy weather, most likely to show off the 3D by adding a layer to the image. It looks quite nice flat, too.

Overall, cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita makes a good case for color alone justifying a remake. But the story itself is the best justification of all. If anything, a story of a man forced out of honorable employment and watching helplessly as his child sinks into poverty and sickness has more resonance for Japanese and global audiences today than it had 50 years ago. When I reviewed the Kobayashi version I compared it to Vietnam-veteran films, given the hero's samurai status, but modern audiences should simply see poverty without worrying about the man's profession. Miike seems to stress the poverty of his protagonists more consistently than Kobayashi did. I recall their poverty seeming more genteel for at least part of the earlier film before the illness of Tsugumo's daughter and grandson precipitates a crisis, while even in color the family home in the Miike looks darker and more drab throughout. Miike plays for pathos more blatantly, aided by a poignant score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, but this isn't an inappropriate course to take with this story. The more abject the family's plight, the more righteous is Tsugumo's wrath at the climax. Also helping justify that cathartic violence are the performances of the Ii retainers. I was particularly impressed by Munetaka Aoki, who took over Testuro Tamba's performance in the original as the bullying retainer who refuses to finish off  Motome despite his agony with a broken sword. Since Miike truncates the story's duel between this bully and Tsugumo, Aoki gets by mainly with a formidable and not unhandsome glower and a hissible contempt for the weak, and that's enough. He could play villains for life with that face. The whole cast benefits from Miike's strong sense of dramatic pacing in the very formal dialogue scenes that frame the non-linear story. The sustained deliberation sustains suspense, even for viewers familiar with the story from the earlier film.

My first impression is that Miike doesn't equal Kobayashi, primarily because Ichikawa Ebizo doesn't equal Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead role. But the new Harakiri is a worthy effort that proves the story evergreen. The flashbacks and the pathos and the righteous anger worked before, work now and probably could work again a generation from now. We may not have needed Miike's Harakiri, but I'm glad we have it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Now Playing: MARCH 12, 1933

Two films from last week are held over for a second week in Milwaukee, each claiming to be the biggest hit in the city. Let's look at the numbers, starting with "the big hit of Milwaukee."

But who is the Garden kidding with their feeble 22,000? For all I know it might have been all the theater could hold, but they could fill the place for an entire second week and still not equal the one-week take claimed by the Warner.

In any event, films don't get held over too often in 1933, so both shows can take a bow.

Now for a history lesson. Fans of Buster Keaton know all too well that by the end of his run with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer he was virtually overshadowed by co-star Jimmy Durante, a comic superficially more suited to talkies with his gravelly voice, his catchphrases and malapropisms. Well, the end is here. What! No Beer? opened in Milwaukee, the city that beer made famous (or something like that) over the weekend, and the newspaper build-up sends a mixed message about the relative standing of the co-stars.

Two days before opening, Keaton is top billed.

One day later, Durante's on top.

By opening night Keaton's face isn't even in the ads anymore. That's sad.

In other theaters...

What is Broadway Bad? Despite Joan Blondell, this is a Fox rather than a Warner Bros. picture,  so there's no easy recourse to a trailer. TCM can at least give us a synopsis, and here's a review from one of the Milwaukee dailies.

Finally, Ginger Rogers gets double exposure in Milwaukee this week, not even counting 42nd Street. Not only does she have a supporting role in Broadway Bad, but she plays a double role in her own starring vehicle at the Riverside.

The Thirteenth Guest is a picture you can find in public-domain box sets, and it's an above-average Poverty Row old-dark-house affair, thanks to such A-minus talent of the moment as Rogers and Warner Bros. contract player Lyle Talbot. Things seem definitely to be looking up for Miss Rogers....