Friday, January 28, 2011

Double Dynamite

(1951, 80 min.)

Starring Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Jane Russell, Don McGuire, Howard Freeman, Nestor Paiva, Frank Orth, Harry Hayden, William Edmunds, Russell Thorson.

Screenplay by Melville Shavelson from a story by Leo Rosten from characters created by Mannie Manheim with additional dialogue by Harry Crane (and I think I left out a Hungadunga).

Directed by Irving Cummings.

Johnny Dalton (Sinatra) leads a boring life and that’s the way he likes it (or at least claims to). He’s got a nice woman, Mildred (Russell), but he refuses to marry her until their finances are solid enough to avoid any worry. He’s not even adventurous enough to take a chance on the pickled pig’s feet Emil (Marx), the waiter at his regular lunch place, attempts to foist on him. He figures if he just keeps slogging away at the bank, where both he and Mildred work, as well as the clueless manager (Hayden) and the lothario son (McGuire) of the bank’s owner (Freeman), eventually everything’s going to fall into place. But Mildred is getting tired of waiting, as is Johnny, though he won’t admit it.

One day while out walking, Johnny comes across two toughs roughing a guy up in an alley. They’re both bigger than him, but he manages to make enough noise to get them to run away. The victim, a pretty big guy himself with dark glasses he never removes (cult and mainstream veteran Paiva), tells him there’s no need to call the police, but that Johnny should come along so he can reward him. Next thing Johnny knows, he’s in a betting parlor; seems the man he saved is one of the most powerful crime figures in town, a super-bookie named ‘Hot Horse’ Harris, who has the unique ability to call the winner in any given horserace. He gives Johnny a cool $1000 reward, but then proceeds to bet that grand in race after race until Johnny finds himself with thousands of dollars he didn’t have a few hours before without ever having left the room. Reluctant to be involved at first, Johnny eventually realizes that he can now marry Mildred immediately, as well as buy her everything she’s ever wanted.

His newfound freewheelin’ ways hit a snag when he goes back to the bank and finds that a $75,000 deficit has been discovered and everyone is to be on the lookout for any employee who may be engaging in any unusual spending. Oops. Worse, he can’t give the real explanation for his newfound wealth because the betting parlor has disappeared. Johnny now has to hide the money until he can figure out, with Emil's help, what to do with it.

Given my moniker, you can probably guess why I chose to watch this. As such I feel I need to tell fellow Groucho-philes that while this is a pleasant enough flick, worth seeing should the opportunity fall into your lap, don’t feel the need to run out and comb through your local video stores (which in many areas would also require traveling back in time at this point, sigh). Frank plays the befuddled juvenile role in a way far removed from the tough guy image for which he would later become famous and Jane makes a cute ingénue, especially when playing drunk. But I use the two descriptives “juvenile” and “ingénue” quite deliberately, because, while old Julius gets off some really good lines here and there, this film mostly serves to illustrate what a Marx Brothers movie might have looked like had it not been a Marx Brothers movie; that is to say if their films had not been such a successful reversal of the Hollywood formula, taking the comics out of the relief position and using the romantic plot and its players as window dressing, the excuse to sing a few songs, and more or less act as a McGuffin around which the Brothers could turn the house upside down. What you get here is a pleasant diversion that actually gives you its “true love rises above” attitude without a single gookie for balance.

So, my Marx Brothers brothers, watch it, but watch it, if you follow. Groucho’s performance will give you a small treat, but only if you can ignore the film’s most egregious offense: Emil pretends to be a wealthy businessman to gain a meeting with the bank’s owner…and then doesn’t even insult him once!

This is the sort of behavior that finally brought down Freedonia, I'll have you know.

Back to Plate O' Shrimp

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Woman Is a Woman

(France, 1961, 83 min.)

Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

I've been trying to catch up lately on foreign films I either missed during my stint as a videostore clerk or saw but feel I should see again, and I knew that, inevitably, I would feel the possibly masochistic urge to revisit the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, a man with whom, my friends could tell you, I have had a very contentious critical relationship. But time being what it is, and a decade having passed since the store closed, who knew what changes in myself might affect changes in my attitude towards this vastly overrat- sorry, old habits. I mean, this widely respected but perhaps over-praised filmmaker. That sounds benign enough.

When I decided that the time had come, I figured a dip of the toe would be preferable to a plunge, so I chose this, remembering it as one of the films I liked better than others. (And to clarify, I do enjoy some of his work; I just feel that many celebrate his creative strengths while completely ignoring his weaknesses.) This is Godard’s attempt to make a musical without any songs. (Not many anyway; one scene is set to a Charles Aznavour recording and Karina does perform a number onstage early on.) Using creative music cues to effect this, the filmmaker shows us a young exotic dancer (Godard stable member, director’s paramour, and genuine dollface Karina) pressuring her boyfriend (Brialy) to impregnate her and, when he refuses, considering their close friend (Belmondo) as an alternative, or at least as a way of making the boyfriend jealous enough to relent. The “story” is then played out with various playful sequences, word games, and passing jokes, such as the brief cameo by Jeanne Moreau, wherein Belmondo asks her how filming on Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is going.

If you have ever spent any time with an active theater company, you’ll know the sort of exuberance of which they’re capable, and this movie feels like nothing less than such a company let loose with a camera. As someone who wholeheartedly encourages both creativity and experimentation, I have to give Godard credit for that.


If you have ever spent any time with an active theater company, you’ll also know how overbearing that exuberance can get if you’re exposed to it for too long without being a participant. This reminds me of the repeated comment, if I may genre-jump for a moment, that Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things’ rather accurate portrayal of a bunch of theater types is both one of its greatest accomplishments and one of its deadliest liabilities. Coincidentally enough, I recently ran across tapes of a video project in which I was involved in junior high. It was a kick watching it after so many years, but I couldn’t kid myself that anyone without a personal attachment to the project would feel a corresponding enjoyment.

Moving right past the thinness of the narrative of A Woman Is a Woman, it occurs to me that Godard, in this period at any rate, was very much like the child who does something genuinely clever to the tremendous delight and ringing adulation of the surrounding adults…and who then proceeds to do the same thing over and over and over again, the blissful ignorance of calfhood inuring him to the decreasing charm of the bit. Now that’s not an entirely fair comparison; the child, after all, doesn’t understand what made it a good bit in the first place, and Godard obviously does know what he’s doing, and yet the film tries so hard to mesmerize you with its dimples, one can almost feel the stickiness of the syrup coating the proceedings. I would speculate that this might have worked better as a short, and yet the original trailer included on the Criterion DVD itself almost collapses under the weight of its own precocity, so who knows?

Heh. I did say this was one of my preferred films in the Godard canon, didn’t I? I suppose it still is. And I’m perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that my reservations about it stem from my being a curmudgeonly fucker, but to embrace fully that interpretation would be to deny my honest reaction to the film. I don’t actually demand solid storytelling (although this is a consistent failing on Godard’s part in his early work) as long as the progression of the film is interesting enough; hence my love of David Lynch. And obviously some people can watch this, see how much fun the people making it are having, and be swept up in that spirit. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to do that. Despite the obvious enthusiasm behind it, the innovation used to make it, and the moments of genuine inspiration scattered throughout it, it still feels to me a bit too much like watching someone else’s home movies. Creative home movies, to be sure, but home movies nonetheless.

Thursday, October 07, 2010


(France, 1955, 115 min.)

Starring Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin (as Perlo Vita), Marie Sabouret, Marcel Lupovici, Pierre Grasset, Claude Sylvain, Magali Noel, Janine Darcey, Robert Hossein, Dominique Maurin.

Written by Jules Dassin and Rene Wheeler, from the novel by Auguste LeBreton.

Directed by Jules Dassin.

In a small café in Paris, a card game is going on, but it’s not going well for Tony (Servais). Once a celebrated criminal known as Le Stephanois, Tony, since getting out of prison, can’t even muster the respect to be fronted money in the game he’s losing. Past his prime and not very healthy, Tony thankfully still has friends, including Jo (Möhner), who remains indebted to Tony for taking the fall for the job that landed him in stir. The gratitude is deeper than just criminal code loyalty, however, as witnessed by the fact that Jo’s young son is named Tonio.

Jo and Tony go to visit Mario (Manuel), another friend, and find him getting a sponge bath from his voluptuous wife Ida (Sylvain). Mario has an idea to snatch some precious stones from the window of a local jewelry store, but Tony begs off, being tired of the whole scene. Jo subsequently informs him that he’s seen Tony’s ex, a woman named Mado (Sabouret), at a club called L’age d’or. She’s taken up with the proprietor, a surly man named Grutter (Lupovici), and apparently did so right after Tony went away. Grutter is no stranger to the Paris criminal world himself, nor are his brothers Remi (Hossein) and the opiate-lovin’ Louis (Grasset). Tony goes to the club and confronts Mado. She agrees to go back to his flat, but Tony can’t hide his disgust for long and he soon humiliates her and throws her out. Confronted with his own powerlessness, he meets with Jo and Mario again and agrees to do the job, only a petty smash and grab isn’t going to do the trick. If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it big and go for the safe. A master plan is concocted and carried out, but the inevitable slip brings everything crashing down.

A lot of this probably sounds familiar, but that would be a case of inverse recognition, since every film that uses these tropes got them from this one. That writer-director-actor Dassin managed to work at all at this point in his career was feat enough as it was (there’s plenty of fascinating backstory there: he was a victim of the HUAC blacklist, the poisonous tentacles of which stretched as far as Europe, making it difficult even there to find people who would hire him). That this lucky break would result in his making the quintessential modern heist picture was a happy byproduct that Dassin could probably never have guessed.

No matter how repugnant the reason for Dassin’s having lost out on so many other projects, we can be thankful that he finally landed this one, loosely based on a LeBreton novel that the director had serious reservations about. (He found the depiction of the nightclub gang repugnantly racist.) The talent he displayed for depicting the darker side of Gotham in 1948’s The Naked City gets nicely translated into French, but that’s just one layer in the gateau. At turns playful, somber, sexy, funny and touching (with even a sly, ironic reference to Dassin’s political problems thrown in), the entire mix swirls around a centerpiece break-in sequence in which not a word is spoken by anyone for somewhere in the vicinity of thirty minutes. The producer and soundtrack composer both wanted musical accompaniment but after Dassin showed them his preferred cut, the composer himself did a complete 180 and insisted it be left unadorned. The result is a breathless visual narrative of a crime made all the more suspenseful and sinister by the silence.

But every cake needs a binding agent (we hereby abandon the culinary references) and, appropriate to the incidental way the film came together, this too was driven by circumstance. The budget was too low to hire big name actors, so they got Servais for the lead. Once a prominent actor himself, his career took a downturn owing to his fondness for the ferment. They were subsequently able to get him cheap, but his rough and tumble appearance (‘rough and tumble,’ by the way, being the approximate meaning of the title, as displayed in a night club song sung by Noel that Dassin later felt clashed with the rest of the movie) adds to a performance that is simply spot on. His character’s demons have driven him to a now familiar decision – to go for that one last big score – only it’s never explicitly stated as such, which automatically makes it more understated than its many imitators. Correspondingly, Tony’s acumen, ruthlessness and sadness are all powerfully conveyed by Servais often with little more than his eyes and the lines in his face.

It’s nice to think of the cowards, sycophants and fanatics who wouldn’t give Dassin a break seeing this picture and realizing the opportunities they blew, but it’s probably better – and more in keeping with the filmmaker’s wishes – just to enjoy the picture for what it is. The blueprint for the perfect crime (movie).

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Die! Die! My Darling!

(UK, 1965, 97 minutes)

Starring Tallulah Bankhead, Stefanie Powers, Peter Vaughan, Donald Sutherland, Yootha Joyce, Maurice Kaufmann.

Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on the novel ‘Nightmare’ by Anne Blaisdell.

Directed by Silvio Narizzano.

During the latter portion of my senior year in prep school, I began to hang out regularly with one of the coolest punk rock chicks I have ever known, a true force of nature with a name to match. She had actually graduated the year before, but both of her parents worked at the school and their house was just over a wooded hill past the football field. Taking advantage of my senior-privileged freedom in the post-dinner hours when everyone else was required to be studying, I’d mosey on over to her place and we’d watch movies, listen to music, have a little beer or grass, and even fool around a bit. (Incidentally, I have no idea where her parents, including her football coach father, were during all of this, because I could have been in several different kinds of hurt if I’d been caught.)

Sometimes we’d wander towards town and on several occasions, one in particular that I recall taking place as we hung out on the loading dock of the local post office, we talked about an idea she had for a movie to be called Alice and Basil. It was to be a horror flick in which we would play the titular couple, a vampire queen and her Renfield-like assistant hiding in the modern world of punk rock. Two of my favorite aspects were a minor plot point involving Basil’s ability to remove his own hand, thereby escaping from police cuffs whenever necessary, and a scene in which I would get up on stage and sing a tribute to her in the form of the Misfits song ‘Die! Die! My Darling!’

Now that it’s become apparent why I padded the review with that story, I have to admit that it has nothing to do with the film at hand; neither, beyond the title, does the Misfits song. In fact, Die! Die! isn’t even a horror movie so much as Hammer Studios’ entry in the mini-genre begun by Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in which older actresses get their psycho on. The grande dame in this case is the notorious Tallulah Bankhead, and she’s the main reason why this is worth a look.

Stefanie Powers, probably most famous for the jetset detective series Hart to Hart with Robert Wagner, plays Patricia Carroll, an American who has just arrived in England with her new fiancé, Allan (Kaufmann). Against his wishes, she has agreed to pay a visit to the mother of her previous, now dead fiancé Stephen. Mrs. Trefoile (Bankhead) lives on a large isolated estate in a small town. She disapproves of just about everyone in that town right down to the minister, and so her only companions are her staff, Harry the groundskeeper (Vaughan) who was related somehow to the late Mr. Trefoile, Harry’s wife Anna (Joyce) who keeps the house, and assistant groundskeeper Joseph (Sutherland, who doesn’t have much to do but manages to portray his developmentally disabled character in a fairly compassionate fashion).

Patricia has agreed to meet Mrs. Trefoile out of a sense of decorum (and to gain a personal feeling of what is all-too lazily referred to as closure these days), but it becomes immediately apparent that Mrs. Trefoile is a full-blown religious fanatic (Fanatic was the film’s original British title), who has only called the young woman to her abode in order to make sure that her son was “pure” when he died and that his former betrothed both is so and intends to remain so for when she meets up with her “husband” in heaven. When Patricia decides she is only willing to play along up to a certain point, Mrs. Trefoile has Anna lock her in an upstairs room and proceeds to starve and terrorize her into submission/repentance.

This is pretty tame for a “private prison” movie (I’m not sure who originated that term, but I first came across it at Rob Firsching’s now seemingly defunct Amazing World of Cult Movies site): no chambers of medieval horror, no excruciating sexual sadism. True, the lecherous Harry does try to take advantage at one point and those with a low tolerance for scripture might disagree about the torture thing, but this is less about voyeuristic thrills than it is about a wall of repression that begins to disintegrate when the real world comes knocking one day. Mrs. Trefoile is a former performer who was “saved” from a life of “decadence” by her late husband who then died as soon as their son was born, leaving her with a fucked up sense of propriety and the poor boy with a mother who instantly transferred her dependence on her husband to him. And it turns out most of the house is infected: Harry doesn’t hesitate to cater to Mrs. Trefoile even as he secretly dreams of murdering her; Anna covets Patricia’s finery but takes special pleasure in destroying it at Mrs. Trefoile’s command. Comparatively, Joseph is doing well; he may have trouble telling which end of a book is up, but he’s a hell of a lot happier than anyone else in the accursed place.

So, those looking for something more along the lines of The Sinful Dwarf or Nightmare Circus are going to be disappointed, and others may find it a bit frustrating as well, not because it isn’t any good – at the very least it qualifies as an acceptable timewaster – but because of the film’s own crisis of identity. There’s a halting element of camp that appears and disappears as jarringly as the harpsichord that sometimes blares on the soundtrack, characteristic of the way that the film just never quite hits its mark…with one considerable exception. An exception named Tallulah.

Bankhead was as famous for her antics in life as she was for her acting. Sexual dalliances, hard partying and a general take-no-shit attitude won her both friends and enemies, and while her salad days were long behind her when she made this, her final film appearance in a career spent primarily on the stage, you can still see the dynamo at work. The irony of Mrs. Trefoile’s dead certainty is the uncertainty that lurks beneath it, and Bankhead lets the audience glimpse that private side, but she skillfully prevents it from ever overshadowing the monstrosity. With her famed rasp and clipped, regal movements (even the way she takes off her glasses is menacing), one wonders how Patricia could have thought for a moment that the woman wasn’t a danger to her or even more how it could have taken Harry so long to conclude that she was, indeed, quite “barmy.” Bankhead proved with this role that she was still an actress to be reckoned with, and it is to my chagrin that I will never have to chance to get her together with that wonderful punk rock chick of my younger years, kindred forces of nature, and sing ‘Die! Die! My Darling’ to the both of them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hellish Flesh

(Brazil, 1977, 85 min.)

Starring José Mojica Marins, Luely Figueiró, Oswaldo De Souza, Lirio Bertelli, Helena Ramos.

Screenplay by Rubens Francisco Luchetti from a story by José Mojica Marins,

Directed by José Mojica Marins.

This is a movie about a scream. And I wish I meant that in the poetic, critically analytical way that it sounds, but, no, I’m being literal. The scream of one of the characters is featured in so many scenes, it practically deserves a cast credit of its own. That scream belongs to Dr. Jorge Medeiros (writer/director/producer Marins, best known for his Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe) movies, about a weird sort of anti-hero who revels in the philosophy as well as the practice of evil). Dr. Medeiros is a scientist who dabbles in acid, the kind that makes things dissolve as opposed to the kind that just makes things look like they’re dissolving. One night he sees his wife Raquel (Figueiró) off to a concert she’s attending with their friend Oliver (De Souza), expressing his regret that he can’t take her himself, or for that matter that he can’t seem to take her anywhere, owing to his “experiences.” Raquel herself mentions that she’s gotten used to not seeing him much owing to the importance of his “experiences.” I have to admit I was beginning to wonder why they couldn’t ever share these “experiences,” but then I’m no expert on marriage.

It is revealed soon after that Raquel and Oliver are more than friends – much, much more. It was also revealed around this time that, as I had begun to suspect, the English subtitles were not translated by a native speaker. The “experiences” that kept being mentioned were in fact Jorge’s experiments, most of which seem to involve him putting his face as close as possible to his test tubes. This production error turned out to be somewhat par for the course as numerous typos appeared throughout, and, as with the “experiences,” the occasional flagrant mistranslation. This had the distracting effect of causing my brain to spontaneously make up its own Malapropian subtitles for the ones they got right, my favorite example being Raquel telling the police on the phone that, “There’s been an applesauce at my husband’s leg!”

Which brings us to what happens next. Raquel and Oliver have decided that they can’t stand the situation anymore, the situation being the two of them sneaking around behind the back of what appears to be a perfectly nice man, albeit one with Marins’ trademark creepy-ass affectations, including the long, curly fingernails he always sports. The two philanderers want to eliminate Jorge and live off his fortune, so they come up with a cunning plan. Well, a plan anyway. The whole thing seems to be that Raquel will go into Jorge’s leg- I mean, lab, and throw acid in his face while Oliver fixes them drinks. This doesn’t kill him immediately and he ends up thrashing around screaming at the top of his lungs. Raquel is quite put off by the noise, so Oliver puts down his caipirinha and goes to set the lab on fire, which is when Raquel calls the cops to report the applesauce. I mean- you know what I mean.

Problem for them is, Jorge is one tough bastard and despite the acid and the fire, he still doesn’t die. Raquel and Oliver decide to run off with what money is on hand, while Jorge undergoes facial reconstruction, which brings us a sequence that alternates shots of the two of them dining with footage of what appears to be genuine eye surgery, decidedly upping the ick factor. Jorge is now confined to wearing a mask to hide his injuries and yet he employs a policeman friend of his (Bertelli) not only to keep tabs on Raquel to make sure she’s safe but also to bring her whatever money she needs. And she needs a lot since Jorge’s survival means she isn’t inheriting anything and slacker Oliver is burning through what they stole like, well, like acid through the flesh of an unsuspecting scientist.

Yeah, that had to hurt. But just in case you weren’t able to figure that out for yourself, Marins drives the point home by having the memory of Jorge’s screams piped in to scene after scene after scene. He does use it to interesting effect in one moment late in the film, that is if I’m reading his intentions correctly, but much of the time it mostly serves as a reminder that Marins is rarely hesitant to lay it on as thick as frosting. But at least here it’s somewhat clearer as to what ends. Unlike the Coffin Joe films I’ve seen, which play like twisted carnival shows either repudiating or affirming Catholic belief depending on where you come in, Hellish Flesh, made with only touches of the hallucinatory vibe Marins loves to employ, is kind of like a telenovela version of an EC Comics horror story, narratives gruesome and lurid enough to blind more censorious types to the fact that what they were witnessing were morality plays. Not a perfect description of the brain-scrambling films that Marins makes, but damn close when to comes to Hellish Flesh.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Snack Bar

This would be the section of Plate O' Shrimp dedicated to short form critiques. In other words, all the thoughts I couldn't pad out into a full review. (Yet.)

Blast of Silence (1961, D: Allen Baron) Stark post-noir crime drama from 1961 about a moody expatriate New York hitman who returns home to carry out One Last Job™ and finds that being in his old stomping ground at Christmastime does a number on his head. Writer/director/star Allen Baron’s obvious labor of love may not be for all tastes – I can imagine the more lyrical aspects, particularly as delivered via a prevalent voiceover (written by Waldo Salt! (and delivered by Lionel Stander!)), rubbing some people the wrong way – but the sense of time and place is dead on and the tone is nicely raw. A must-see for devotees of curios, although it deserves a wider audience than that.

Caged Women (Italy, 1982, D: Bruno Mattei) Mattei does WiP (one of at least two that he did, along with ‘83’s Women’s Prison Massacre). Laura Gemser (whose appeal I get but do not personally feel) is a reporter who goes undercover as an inmate to investigate abuse, butts heads with the domineering prisoner, ends up clashing with the sadistic matron, i.e. everything we’ve seen before. There is the expected nudity and nastiness, and yet the movie also props up my belief that Mattei made genuine attempts to inject social relevance into his films. Crassly exploitative as the whole thing is, Mattei strays into some surprisingly progressive territory, largely by virtue of the character of the prison doctor, who is also an inmate himself in the adjoining men’s facility for Kevorkian-ing his wife. I don’t know if Mattei, like Deodato, ever tried to justify his work in such a way, but he might have had a case to make if he had. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that he was a terrible director and that segments of this film are over-the-top bad, a.k.a., terrific.

Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia, 1966, D: Jiri Menzel) One could be forgiven for wondering why a movie that takes place in a territory technically occupied by Nazis has so few Nazis in it, but that’s kind of the point. A young man in a small Czech town takes a job at the train station because it affords him the prestige of a uniform without him actually having to do anything. This being a mere checkpoint along the arms route, the denizens are free to worry about other matters, which always seem to involve their libidos. The war does interfere here and there, but this is mostly a study of that uniquely Eastern European ennui, and a surprisingly funny one at that.

Doulos, Le (France, 1962, D: Jean-Pierre Melville) Crime drama about assorted criminals and their assorted loyalties, with one played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the center of it all who may or may not be a police informant. I found the whole thing kind of meandering, until a scene about two thirds of the way through when all of a sudden everything that’s come before begins to make sense. I also have to wonder if the Coens were somewhat inspired by this film when they were writing Miller’s Crossing. Not only do both films have a lot to do with the allegiances of criminals, but Le Doulous has a hat theme as well. We’re told at the beginning that the title is slang for both an informant and a kind of hat, plus one important scene has a shot of a hat rolling across a room. Possibly a coincidence, but it did strike me.

NEW! Fair Game (2010, D: Doug Liman) I rarely get a chance to watch recent films, but a preview copy of this fell into my hands and it was one film that I had significant reason to want to see, both for the political nature of the story and the fact that I haven't stopped loving Naomi Watts since the cold December night when I first laid eyes on her at a showing of Mulholland Dr. at a theater on East 59th Street. I was a little leery of the fact that Doug Liman was the director, not because I have any problem with him - I just didn't know that the filmmaker behind such hyperkinetic fare as GO and The Bourne Identity was the person to helm a story of such grave, real-world importance as the outing of intelligence operative Valerie Plame as a way of punishing her husband Joe Wilson for daring to point out that the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq was crap. And, to be frank, the movie does come off as a bit slick at times. But it's not a huge liability, and it occurred to me that if a little bit of industry flash meant more people saw this, then so be it. In fact, I would gladly lobby for the story to be remade in as many different genres as possible - action, romance, horror (there are certainly enough monsters in evidence) - just to make sure as many people as possible become aware of what was probably the most repugnantly petty action of one of the most corrupt administrations this country has ever seen. Make a Muppet version while you're at it so the kids will know.

The Ghost of Mae Nak (Thailand, 2005, D: Mark Duffield) Serviceable, if unexceptional, Thai ghost story, written, directed and produced by people with decidedly non-Thai names, about a newlywed couple who buy a house only to be harassed by a (wait for it) freaky female ghost with long black hair. I think this was the first time I got any kind of good look at Bangkok, so that was cool. The lead actress was exceptionally cute, so that was cool too. One of the odder aspects of the whole thing is that a fairly somber tone is maintained throughout much of the story, which makes it strange that they seem to have chosen to play the somewhat graphic gore scenes for laughs. Worth a look if it’s within reach.

A Girl Cut in Two (France-Germany, 2007, D: Claude Chabrol) Having worked in a video store with a tremendous library, I managed to study pieces of a lot of different film movements and the entirety of, well, probably none. When it comes to the famed French New Wave, I wish to Christ I could get back some of the time I spent watching Godard’s more odious pieces so I could switch it with time spent watching the work of the director of this film, Claude Chabrol. And having said all of that, I’m not exactly basing that wish on this particular film. Ludivine Sagnier, the frequently naked co-star of Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, plays an up-and-coming TV personality who becomes torn between two men, one a middle-aged novelist and the other a young heir to a pharmaceutical empire. Both men hate each other for reasons we are never explicitly told. There’s obviously something being said here about arrested development – both men are basically kids at heart, only minus the innocence, the exact quality in her that makes each want to debase her in some way – but even with that potentially volatile subject, not to mention good performances and direction, it all feels rather weightless. Sagnier, keeping her clothes on this time, is a vibrant presence throughout. Speaking of famous nude people, Mathilda May, almost unrecognizable as the same woman who played Lifeforce’s space vampire, appears here as the novelist’s publicist, a vamp of a different sort.

Gore Whore (1994, D: Hugh Gallagher) Super cheap, super sleazy, badly acted, shot-on-video adaptation of Edith Wharton (one of those things isn’t true) about a dead prostitute (Audrey Street) who gets re-animated, steals the re-animating formula and then goes about murdering and re-animating a bunch of men by shooting the formula up their asses with a combination syringe/big black dildo. It took me two tries to get all the way through this, not because it’s boring – although it doesn’t really have anything going for it beyond the abundant filth and grue – and not because of the less-than-flattering descriptives listed above. Definitely not the latter, a fact made all too clear to me by the fact that around the same time I saw this I also re-watched Female Trouble, possibly my favorite John Waters, also super cheap, super sleazy and badly acted. But while Gore Whore has a certain energy to be admired, giving its all in light of where it falls on the cinema-of-limitations scale, and the cast are certainly game for the task, they simply don’t have the inherently gonzo personalities of the Waters stable. Having players like Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Edith Massey, et al, it was as if Waters achieved a kind of cosmic confluence of camp the likes of which is unlikely to ever happen again. Try as hard as they might, there’s simply no way the makers of Gore Whore could have recreated magic like that, and it may be unfair of me to even make the comparison, but it was something that popped into my mind more than once while I watched it. At any rate, sleaze connoisseurs should definitely seek this out.

NEW! Juliet of the Spirits (1965, D: Federico Fellini) Fellini directs his wife, Giulietta Masina, in a surrealistic fantasy the plot of which is essentially a woman wondering if her husband is having an affair. As she interacts with her oddball friends and the mysterious woman next door (and her oddball friends), her suspicion intermingles with neuroses left over from childhood and her own lust, unleashing a series of bizarre hallucinations, but where does the line between reality and fantasy really lie? This is easily the most fascinating film I've seen in a while. This was, arguably, the first film in which Fellini really allowed his imagination to dive into the deep end of the psyche (taking up where left off, with his previous work, despite elements of his love for spectacle and caricature, tending to be more grounded in reality) and he assembles a circusload of characters and images that he utilizes with a remarkably deft hand. Masina is, as always, a riveting figure, no small feat in a movie with this much going on, and Fellini ups the ante by bucking expectations on a regular basis, such as having recurring disturbing images (one of which, a young girl with crazed eyes tied to a burning fence, would have been right at home in a giallo) pop up in the background of sunny outdoor scenarios set to Nino Rota's playful score, almost as if Italian horror had mated with one of the party scenes from a Blake Edwards movie. I have to believe both David Lynch and John Waters have seen this, the former because Fellini's use of sound, silence, and dualistic images would be right at home in one of Lynch's more gonzo works, and the latter because the next door neighbor's make-up and fashion sense are extremely similar to the look Divine sported in Pink Flamingos. An absolute must-see for anyone interested in surrealism, Euro-weirdness, or witnessing one of our world-class filmmakers directing with no brakes and yet no casualties.

NEW! Last Train from Gun Hill (1959, D: John Sturges) A marshall (Kirk Douglas) and a rancher (Anthony Quinn), former friends, find themselves in a deadly situation when Douglas comes looking for the man who raped and murdered his Native American wife and it turns out to be Quinn's son (Earl Holliman). Douglas then has to find a way to get Holliman out of the town of which Quinn is essentially the king, possibly with the help of Carolyn Jones as the resident damaged damsel. This is a perfectly servicable western story and yet it somehow falls just short of its mark. Maybe it's me, though; other westerns kept popping into my head as I watched it. The general hunting-the-man-who-raped-and-murdered-my-wife theme made me think of Lang's Rancho Notorious, and the extended sequence with Douglas and Holliman holed up in a hotel waiting for train time conjured memories of Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma. Not that I'm implying copycat-ism - both aspects are different enough to stand on their own - but something just seems lacking, despite a good cast, scattered stand-out moments and a strong finale.

The Love-Ins (1967, D: Arthur Dreifuss) Hair-brained story about a college professor who quits his job and becomes a Timothy Leary-style hippie guru, preaching free love and LSD use. It seems to want to represent the viewpoints, and assorted pros and cons, of both the squares and the heads, but when you’re pretty much portraying everyone as a hypocritical, reactionary asshole, minus any kind of genuine context, what’s the point? (i.e. The main character is portrayed as a man of principle until its suddenly convenient for him to be an opportunistic creep.) However, the Alice in Wonderland dance number cum drug trip is a must see.

Mad Max (Australia, 1979, D: George Miller) The society-in-decline movie about out-of-control joy-riding criminals and barely-in-control cops that helped launch both a post-apocalyptic genre and Mel Gibson. I’m not an action movie fan in general, and I hate cars, but I can’t deny that this is some knuckle-biting stuff. In regard to the other genre it represents, the film certainly stands as an interesting contrast to so many revenge films of the ‘80s, both in what they have in common and what they don’t. It hits many of the familiar spots but takes the time to develop a real sense of the world of the film with them, as opposed to viewing them as mere stepping stones to the payback. And when you consider that...[SPOILER]...the incident that sends Max into full revenge mode doesn’t happen until way near the end, whereupon he rapidly and efficiently takes out the bad guys (including a comparatively unceremonious demise for the ringleader), it really does reveal the numerous Death Wish imitators for the exercises in masturbatory violence that they are.

NEW! Man of Marble (Poland, 1977, D: Andrzej Wajda) A young Polish filmmaker struggles to complete a project about a famous bricklayer. That almost sounds like the sort of satirical description of an arthouse movie that they used to use on Frasier, but this is quite real. And, of course, there's a lot more to it than that. The majority of the film takes place in the past, as said bricklayer gains national acclaim for helming a building project that breaks a record for labor (and which is filmed for propagandistic reasons) only to fall from grace when he refuses to play the Party game. If this doesn't seem like the sort of thing for you, consider that director Andrzej Wajda (pronouned 'An-jay Vai-da' in case anyone was wondering) managed to get a roughly two-hour and forty-minute film out of it and it will probably seem even less so. And that's not even counting the sequel, Man of Iron, which runs a mere two hours and thirty-two minutes. I got this off of a City University of New York television program called City Cinematheque and it was accompanied by a half-hour interview by producer/professor Jerry Carlson with Wajda. One of the most interesting things Wajda talks about is that there was an extended period in Poland during the Soviet era when, contrary to the practice in many Soviet countries where artists had to get direct permission from the government to do whatever they wanted to do (often to very limited results), Poland utilized a system by which an intermediary organization would take the script to the government and, upon approval, take responsibility for the finished product. Subsequently there was no government "editor" on the set during production and scripts were often freely changed, resulting in finished products not quite what the powers that be were expecting. So, yay for artistic freedom. Distribution, on the other hand, was another matter. When Man of Marble was completed, the government tarred it as an anti-socialist film (despite being considerably pro-labor) and relegated its exhibition to a single theater. When the crowds that showed up to see it turned out to be too much for the venue to handle, they relented and allowed for two more theaters, but sternly declared that it would not be exhibited outside of Poland. Only, the regular French distributor of Wajda's films managed somehow (he doesn't explicitly say how) to secure a copy and it was subsequently shown as the unannounced "surprise" film at the Cannes festival, thereby unleashing it upon the world, whether the Polish government liked it or not. Wajda uses this as an example of how the smallest crack in an authoritarian power can allow things to slip from their control. One likes to think of the lesson that genuine advocates of freedom - of both expression and in general - can take from this, while inwardly cringing at what those who see no contradiction in "enforcing" freedom through authoritarian means might take away from it as well.

My Winnipeg (Canada, 2007, D: Guy Maddin) Documentary (of sorts) about avant-garde filmmaker Maddin’s hometown is a typically bold mix of the real and the surreal, B&W and color, fact and fiction, stock footage and new footage (much of it made to look like stock footage), etc. Recreated moments from his family’s life are mixed with stories of places within the city from the same period that have long since fallen victim to bad decisions, resulting in a brew of nostalgia, anger and regret that manages, as does so much of the director’s work, to be wildly hallucinatory and eerily sedate at the same time. I know some people find Maddin’s films off-putting, but outside the setting of a (completely) fictional drama, they might find his aggressively poetic stylistics easier to take. Personally, I found it utterly beautiful and mesmerizing.

The Oracle (1985, D: Roberta Findlay) Young couple moves into a new apartment and the wife begins fooling with a planchette (ouija type of device) left behind by the woman who previously occupied the place. She begins to realize that a murdered man is using the device to tell her who killed him. Additionally, whoever tries to get rid of the planchette is offed by a demonic presence, which may or may not be connected to the dead man (not a mystery the movie bothers to deal with). Cheap production, amateurish acting, and at least one scene of unrepentant tawdriness, as is to be expected from any production helmed by a Findlay (Roberta alone in this case; Michael had already died by this point), but I quite enjoyed this. The story is surprisingly solid – indeed, some of the more eccentric plot points could have been used to good effect in an offbeat noir the likes of which Sam Fuller used to make – there’s some decent gore, good use (typical of the Findlays) of NYC locations, and the lead, Caroline Capers Powers, is very cute, with a kind of a young Jennifer Connelly thing going on. A good choice for cheapo night.

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947, D: Stuart Heisler) Susan Hayward plays a nightclub singer who gives up her job to marry her songwriter sweetheart (Lee Bowman) and have a child, only to have his career as a radio crooner take off while she devolves into alcoholism. This movie was the breakout vehicle for Hayward and even garnered her an Oscar nomination, for which she should have thanked her lucky stars, because the whole thing is really a lot of melodramatic piffle. Bowman was apparently not happy that so much attention was lavished on his co-star, and frankly, while he’s kind of wooden at times, he does come off a bit better even if only because his character is a lot more sympathetic. Best of all is Eddie Albert as Bowman’s songwriting partner who maintains his aw-shucks decency – and therefore his dignity as well – despite repeatedly being treated like a second banana in almost every situation. Marsha Hunt also has one really good scene as the talent scout who harbors feelings for Bowman. Not a bad movie, exactly, but be prepared to snigger when the movie wants you to sob.

NEW! Teenage Cruisers (1877, D: Tom Denucci & Johnny Legend (as Martin Margulies)) When a fellow devotee of cult-y salaciousness told me he was sending this to me, I somehow got the impresson that it was another teen T&A comedy. I was not prepared for the fact that it was hardcore. I was even less prepared for the fact that it's a quite bizarre, almost Dada-esque image pastiche, at least at times. There are recurring characters but no actual story. The legendary Johnny Legend plays a DJ and his segments in the radio station act as glue for a series of random scenes, some of which involve sex acts, some of which do not. There's a slapsticky feel to a lot of it (a scene involving two naked girls in a pie-making contest that devolves into a pie-throwing contest is the primary reason my friend sent it to me in the first place), some of the deliberately button-pushing humor deserves the laughs it seeks, some...doesn't, and an underlying current of morbidity slops up to the surface from time to time as well. I haven't run across many XXX movies that seem to demand a repeat viewing purely for artistic reasons, even in the period this came from before the whole enterprise devolved into rote bullshit, but if there are more like this out there, I guess I need to take another look through the Something Weird catalog.

Umberto D. (Italy, 1952, D: Vittorio De Sica) Aging pensioner finds himself in dangerous debt to his landlady – a woman he once helped when she was down and out – and does everything he can to make sure that he and his dog do not become homeless. Another one of Italian neo-realist De Sica’s studies of the sort of abominable treatment the downtrodden sometimes received in post-WWII Italy, this heart-wrencher - which sort of utilizes the dog in the way many of these films use children - does offer an ending that, while not happy, is at least hopeful. The humanist empathy of the neo-realists was undeniable, but that doesn’t make their movies any easier to watch.

Venus in Furs (UK-Italy-Germany, D: Jess Franco) Jazz musician is (slightly) surprised when a woman whose murder he (sort of) witnessed and whose body he subsequently found washed up on shore in Istanbul turns up in Rio where he has relocated, very much alive and just as hostile to the idea of clothing as she was before. Plus there’s Klaus Kinski and strange deaths. The tape I was watching of this got all hinky two thirds of the way through so I had to stop and fix it, which is detrimental to the viewing of any Jess Franco movie. It’s really best to let them wash over you without a lot of critical thought. In fact, having his main character be a jazz musician is one of Franco’s most appropriate meta-ideas since his own modus operandi seems to be setting a theme and then just riffing on it for as long as he can sustain it, plus sex. If you like Franco, you’ll probably enjoy this. If not...

NEW! White Nights (Italy, 1957, D: Luchino Visconti) No, not the Gregory-Hines-helps-Mikhail-Baryshnikov-defect movie. This is Italian auteur Visconti’s adaptation of the Dostoevsky short story of the same name. A young citydweller (Marcello Mastroianni) dealing with loneliness chances upon a young woman (Maria Schell) on a bridge at night. She tells him that she’s waiting for a man who went away after a brief courtship but who promised to return and marry her in a year’s time, which is right about then. He agrees to help her, all the while hoping she’ll abandon her folly and fall for him. Visconti manages to strike a good balance between faithfulness to the original story and his own invention, the latter most evident in a funny scene in which the pair try to join in at a cafe where people are dancing to Bill Haley and the Comets despite neither having any experience with rock music. There are additional changes, some practical (setting it in Italy instead of Russia), some dramaturgical (Mastroianni plays the character with a greater degree of selfishess than is evident in the story, which fleshes things out a bit), but it all works pretty well. But the thing that works best of all, whether the rest of it works for you or not (and frankly, the story is pretty much of a trifle), is that it is, like much of the director's work, a beautiful thing to look at. In this case, the credit goes to the fact that the entire thing was filmed on a set, the essence of an entire town constructed on the Cinecitta lot. Aside from being an impressive achievement, it manages to bring out the fairy tale quality of the girl’s story as well as suggesting the insular alienation that the man feels. This doesn’t seem to get mentioned as much as Visconti’s more grandiose works, such as The Leopard or The Damned, but it’s well worth seeing.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Phantom Lady

(1944, 87 min.)

Starring Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis, Thomas Gomez, Elisha Cook, Jr., Fay Helm, Aurora Miranda (as Aurora), Andrew Tombes, Regis Toomey, Joseph Crehan.

Screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld, from the novel by Cornell Woolrich, writing as William Irish.

Directed by Robert Siodmak.

As our story begins, New York architect Scott Henderson (Curtis) is out on the town and in a lousy mood, for reasons to which we are not yet privy. Dulling the pain in a bar with his ferment of choice, he impulsively invites the woman on the next stool (Helm) to come see a show with him. She seems an unlikely candidate to offer him much comfort, being rather perturbed herself, but he assures her he wants nothing more than company and wouldn’t it be a shame for the tickets to go to waste. She agrees, reluctantly, insisting on total anonymity as part of the deal.

They hit the theater where they see a Latin-themed review. Scott’s “date” is wearing a rather garish hat, which stands out all the more when the lead performer onstage, Monteiro (Miranda), turns out to be wearing the same one. The acid looks the singer shoots at Scott’s companion are rivaled only by the cheesy grin of the drummer in the band (Cook). After the show, Scott walks her back to the bar and they part company.

Scott heads home only to find a couple of police detectives in his apartment (Toomey and Crehan) along with their boss, Detective Burgess (the reliably watchable Gomez). Turns out that Scott’s wife was murdered while he was out, viciously strangled with one of his own ties. Scott admits that they had just had a terrible fight – and that the marriage was, for all intents and purposes, over – but that she was alive when he left. Despondent over the state of things, he had left the apartment resulting in his encounter with the mystery woman, who could verify his story if they would just ask her. Problem is he doesn’t know her name and, even worse, every single person who saw them together now claims he was alone. Looks like it’s time to send in housekeeping to make up a bunk on death row, unless, of course, Scott’s trusty assistant Carol Richman (Raines) can find the mystery woman and put him in the clear.

The above set-up is presented in fairly concise fashion, all the better for the focus of the film to shift to Carol, the actual lead character. She’s served up with equal succinctness – we know that she’s a small town girl transplanted to the big city because Henderson calls her “Kansas”; we know that she still has some of the small town girl in her by the way she fiddles with her stockings when she’s nervous – and that shorthand too turns out to be a mere springboard for what comes next, as the small town girl rather abruptly plunges into the darker sides of the big bad city in the interest of clearing her boss’s name.

Director Siodmak was one of that famed group of filmmakers that made the journey from Germany to Hollywood rather than stick around to see how the whole Nazi thing worked out. Here, working from a novel by suspense master Woolrich, penned under one of his pseudonyms, Siodmak creates an odd little noir that I can’t completely make up my mind about. Enjoyable as it is, long before Carol reaches any sort of definitive point in her quest to clear Scott, with the help of Scott’s best friend Jack Marlow (Tone) and Detective Burgess, who has come to rethink the case, the film drops a significant piece of the mystery in the audience’s lap. It allows Siodmak to dabble in similar psychological territory to other crime films of his native land, and yet also changes the nature of the intrigue in a such a way that…well, like I said, I can’t quite make up my mind about, although I suspect it probably worked a bit better on paper.

But either way it’s hardly a deal-breaker. The film does have a few logical bumps and indulges in some of the sort of hyper-stylistics to which fans of the genre are largely inured, but overall it succeeds, with clever details scattered here and there and some really effective sequences, including one in an elevated train station and one at a jazz jam session that is remarkably bald-faced in its sexual overtones. Anchoring it all is Raines, who gives a sweet and sexy performance as a woman with a singular focus (and who is actually more attractive when she’s just being herself than when she’s deliberately playing the vixen). Despite the obvious markers as to Carol’s origins, the film isn’t condescending about it, or about anything in regard to her really. Detective Burgess does acknowledge the danger of what she’s doing but doesn’t make a big production of it, more or less trusting her judgment. That she’s doing it for love may be one of the ultimate clichés, but in a genre that routinely paints women as either dangerously naïve or just plain dangerous, the film’s willingness to allow for the possibility that, as a grown woman, she may know exactly what she’s doing makes Phantom Lady seem almost liberated.