Iconoclash!

100In the pattern we’ve established, about every six weeks I go over to Rick’s and we just sit and watch movies on his finely-calibrated plasma set (this time I got to drive through a monsoon, which is about as much fun as you’d expect). We’re both cinematic omnivores, but Rick’s a better omnivore than me, by which I mean he’s more open to new experiences, which I sometimes approach with a sense of dread.

51MNM0KJHVLThis time, we had lucked upon a theme for our choices: Cinematic icons at war with each other (that two of the movies were on my 100 list for this year was certainly a bonus). To set the groundwork for this, we began with Werner Herzog’s sublime documentary on his fractious relationship with Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend.

Kinski’s on-set tantrums were the stuff of legend, and Herzog was frequently the focus of those screaming fits; somehow they still managed to make five movies together that stand as classics of modern cinema. Herzog reveals that he met Kinski while the director was still a child; they both lived for a time in a boarding house, and found Kinski  absolutely terrifying (but admittedly memorable). He then leads us through their movies and times together, revisiting locations and interviewing people years after the fact. Eva Mattes, his co-star in Woyzeck, and Claudia Cardinale, ditto for Fitzcarraldo, seem to be the only people who have nice things to say about Kinski. Apparently this is the sort of thing that happens when one fires a rifle into a hut full of extras.

cobra-verde-1987-007-werner-herzog-and-klaus-kinski-hug-on-location-1000x750Herzog, I think, has the proper range to gauge the truth about Kinski – a self-aggrandizing egomaniac who used his rages to make sure he was the center of attention at all times. Even then, Herzog continues, once his rage was spent, Kinski was capable of genius, and his hair-trigger temper kept everyone very professional, lest they trigger another outburst. Other footage, at festivals and behind the scenes, confirm Mattes and Cardinale’s tales that he was capable of great charm and warmth. My Best Fiend is an amazing odyssey, and if nothing else, it makes you want to watch these movies all over again.

Uh, about that "Tobe Hooper"...

Uh, about that “Tobe Hooper”…

The thing is, this was actually homework. Rick had been doing one of those falling-down-the-wikipedia rabbit hole affairs, checking for details on his new favorite actor, Oliver Reed, when he discovered that Reed had made a movie with Kinski in 1981 – Venom – and the idea of trying to keep those two in control during production led to us seeking it out. At the very least, I thought, Reed would eventually drink himself into unconsciousness…

Venom is one of those movies where you suspect the making would have made a better movie than what wound up onscreen. Based on a fairly successful suspense novel by South African writer Alan Scholefield, it was originally going to be directed by Tobe Hooper, who left over “creative differences” (by some reports, a nervous breakdown). Kinski apparently later crowed at a premiere party that he and the other actors ganged up on the Texan to make him quit. Director Piers Haggard replaced him (best known in these parts for Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Quatermass Conclusion), who later opined that the nicest person on the set was the black mamba snake.

venom6The story concerns the kidnapping of a motel magnate’s son which goes rapidly south when one of the conspirators, the family’s chauffeur (Reed), panics and shoots a police officer, killing him. The officer was there to alert the family that the son – who has quite the menagerie in his room – accidentally picked up the black mamba from the pet store instead of a harmless African house snake. Now the snake is loose in the house, which is surrounded by the Police, and it’s in a nastier mood than the kidnappers.

0_109542_bf120f53_origKinski plays Jaclen, the mastermind behind the crime. Susan George is his girlfriend, who’s worked in the household for eight weeks as a maid. Sterling Hayden, in his penultimate role, looks incredibly out-of-place as the boy’s grandfather, a retired big game hunter. Sarah Miles is a herpetologist whose major jobs are to A) tell us how deadly black mambas are, and how they can do everything except teleport through walls (and the jury is out on that one) and B) get taken hostage by Jaclen. All good actors (each with their own varying reputations for being difficult) that put in acceptable jobs, but the one I enjoyed was Nicol Williamson as the Police Inspector who gets saddled with this mess.

But Rick and I were there to watch the fireworks between Kinski and Reed. There aren’t many visible, which is remarkable considering that Reed basically spent the entire shoot annoying Kinski to make him blow. What shows up in the movie belies that, with Reed playing an increasingly desperate everyman who is in way, way over his head, and Kinski playing the calmest man in the house. There is one scene, when Reed makes one of his many trips to the liquor cabinet, and Kinski grabs his hand, stopping him – there is a true flash of hatred, and it looks like the split second before a massive bar brawl starts.

"You are about to lose that f*cking Nazi hand."

“You are about to lose that f*cking Nazi hand.”

“Acceptable” is a fair adjective to use on Venom. You won’t begrudge its 90 minutes, but you probably won’t care to revisit it, either. The best illustration for its problems is the scene where Kinski forces Hayden to search a room for the snake (since he has experience with the nasty things), and as constructed, it should be very suspenseful – or it would be if it hadn’t been established in the previous scene that the snake has already slithered into the ventilating system. We know it’s not in that room. Still, Haggard should be commended for producing a movie that’s at least watchable, given that he had absolutely no prep time, a script that was already locked down, and a cast that wanted to murder each other on the good days.

Poster - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane_01All this was mere preparation, though, for the main event. A movie which Rick and I had managed to get through our entire lives without seeing, setting two screens icons against each other: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

If, like Rick, you’re familiar with the title but have no idea what the movie’s about: Baby Jane is a vaudeville singing sensation whose ignored sister Blanche becomes a beloved movie star in the 30s while Jane’s movies are… struggling. One night, there is an auto accident involving the two, resulting in Blanche confined to a wheelchair. Fast forward to the 60s, where Jane and Blanche have aged into Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Jane is taking care of Blanche, but is becoming increasingly unstable and abusive. Emphasis on the abusive, as during the course of the picture, Jane will cut Blanche off from the outside world and proceed to torment her.

b050cf939aca4acd88a502737100efa2Movies like this – psychological horror/hostage dramas -have never been my cup of tea, which is why I’ve avoided the movie all this time, but now I’ve seen it. And I can say I’ve seen it. It is a well-made movie, and it broke box office records at the time. Director Robert Aldrich (who has quite the varied and interesting filmography) uses the open enmity between Davis and Crawford for all its worth, but this isn’t just a carnival gladiator match, like Reed and Kinski; there is some real depth and acting here using all that hate.

bette-baby-janeCrawford does a marvelous job – audience sympathy obviously goes out to her, but she never quite makes Blanche likable, a choice that pays off on repeat viewings – but there is never any doubt that Davis owns this picture. She takes possession of the character of Jane and positively nails every single frame she is in to a wall. Davis had a great degree of leeway from Aldrich in designing Jane’s appearance, reasoning, among other things, that Jane never washed her face, just applied more makeup. Roger Ebert once wrote that the canniest career move Bette Davis ever made was growing older. He was talking about All About Eve, but the same reasoning holds here, The incredible grotesquerie that Davis breathes life and malevolence into is not to be missed (even if this type of movie is not your cup of tea). This is what total commitment looks like. Davis was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but it went to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker.

whatever-aldrich-directingIf more motivation to watch is needed, you can also toss in Victor Buono’s debut role as an unemployed musician desperate for the gig playing for Baby Jane’s fantasy comeback; their first scene together is like a miniature acting school, sidewise glances that tell us everything we need to know about what is going on in the characters’ minds.

This rather marks a high point for both actresses at this stage in their careers; the shelf life for Hollywood actresses is depressingly, frustratingly short, and for them the future held more of the same, but lesser. Davis in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (which I prefer quite a bit over Jane) and The Nanny, Crawford in Straitjacket and Trog. This was a high point, as sad as that might seem.

 

The Color of Horror

100Tim Lucas starts out his typically excellent audio commentary for the recent Arrow Films restoration of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace with an anecdote about Ernst Lubitsch. Apparently the director told a visitor to the set of Heaven Can Wait that Technicolor worked best with musicals and comedy, and should never be used for drama or mysteries. Lucas presents Blood and Black Lace as the prime exhibit that Lubitsch’s reasoning is incorrect. With the synchronicity that runs my life at this juncture, I watched another movie afterwards that also contested it, only earlier.

babl2Blood and Black Lace has followed me around all my life, it seems. It was released in the US in 1965, which would put me at eight years of age, already a veteran reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland; it made enough of a splash that I determined that this was something I needed to see. A bit of confusion led me, a few years later, to watch a late night TV showing of Blood and Roses (and talk about being even more confused later – I was much too young for Vadim, even edited for TV). So it’s actually taken me something like half a century to see this movie, and watching just the opening credits unfurl, all ravishing color and dark wit, lets me know the wait for this version was worth it. (This sequence was replaced for the American release with one by Filmation, included on the disc as an extra. Macabre, but much less colorful. Much.)

I almost didn’t get to see it. This was supposed to be a high profile release from the new Arrow Video USA branch, but apparently the rights weren’t cleared up before the release was announced, and the title is on the “Indefinitely Delayed” list. Possibly as a cost-saving measure, though, the concurrent British release of the blu-ray was pressed for both Regions A & B, and I have this account with Amazon UK that proves very useful at times like this…

I think the difference in cost was like three bucks. The extra dough and extra wait were proven to be worthwhile in the first five seconds of the menu, which quotes the above-mentioned title sequence.

blood-and-black-lace-09Blood and Black Lace involves a series of murders decimating the models of a high fashion house in Rome. This may not be the first giallo movie (that title usually goes to director Mario Bava’s earlier, black-and-white The Girl Who Knew Too Much), but it is the one that codifies much of what would become the hallmarks of giallo: a series of sadistic murders, a black-gloved (and in this case, literally faceless) murderer, and innovative and stylish camerawork.

The murders are extremely sadistic, though we don’t see a lot of gore; the victims are models, and the killer always seems to take special care to disfigure his victims. Bava started out as a lighting cameraman, and his ingenuity shines through, especially for such a low-budget movie. Unable to afford an expensive camera dolly and track, his artful, sweeping moves are accomplished with a child’s toy wagon. And the color! The phrase “color you could eat with a spoon” is a silly metaphor, but amazingly apt for this picture. It’s been plagued with substandard video releases to date, and small wonder, as the reds Bava employs would eat its way through any standard VHS tape.

blood-and-black-lace-stillLest one should think the color is a gimmick, Bava cagily uses the lack of it in his daytime scenes, always involving the police, who (as they must be in any giallo) are of very little help, hidebound in their dull little colorless world of procedures and guesswork. Killers and victims exist in a darker yet brighter world, candy-colored and fluorescent. Color is the province of the flamboyant, be they artists or madmen, and both revel in the night.

Blood-and-Black-Lace-8Bava’s casting is also magnificent; Cameron Mitchell (who seems unrealistically young, at this far remove!), Eva Bartok, Luciano Pigozzi (whose full name should really be “Luciano Pigozzi, the Italian Peter Lorre”) and a number of remarkable women as the models, like Mary Arden (who had a remarkable life after), and my favorite, Harriet Medin, whose even more remarkable life Lucas expounds upon in the commentary. Here, she plays a housekeeper with some important red herring information. I instantly recognized her as Thomasina Paine in Death Race 2000.

The mystery itself plays fair with the viewer for the most part, although there is one bit when a character does something so inexplicable, it is almost certainly something Bava threw in to muddy the waters for the viewer. It’s not just a red herring (appropriate in this brightly colored milieu), it’s a big slab of what the hell that still leads to one of the most effective scenes, so we’ll just let it lie. Pondering the movie afterwards does provide a rationale for it, but it does require pondering. A very minor quibble to have this movie in such a bewitching presentation.

This is a very good disc, is what I’m saying. I’ve watched it twice so far, once to experience the movie, once to listen to Lucas’ commentary, and I’m trying to find time for a third run, this time with the English dub so I can enjoy Paul Frees being all the male characters. Does he voice Luciano Pigozzi The Italian Peter Lorre with an actual Peter Lorre? I need to know.

So I followed Blood and Black Lace up with another movie about sadistic murders, Peeping Tom, which could not be more different in tone, but no less artistic.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREPeeping Tom is largely famous for completely destroying the already sinking career of director Michael Powell, who is justly famous for movies like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. These are all amazing, well-loved movies (and some would point out, made during his fruitful partnership with Emeric Pressburger). Peeping Tom is such an about-face from this earlier material, it seems almost an act of madness itself; that its initial withering critical reception and failure would, decades later, turn into rediscovery and reverence, is now a familiar, tragic tale.

In a reverse from Blood and Black Lace, we know who the killer is from the start: it’s Mark (Carl Boehm), a camera-obsessed, soft-spoken young man who A) works as a cameraman in a movie studio (giving Powell a chance to lampoon some of his friends/enemies over the years); B) Shoots pornographic photos, or in the parlance of the time, “views”, for a local newsagent; C) Rents out the rooms of his father’s spacious home; D) kills prostitutes while filming their death throes, using a camera tripod leg with a knife at the tip.

peeping-tom2There’s one facet of the murders that Powell hides from us until the very end, relying only on the police exclaiming over the look of extreme terror on the victims’ faces; we will see Mark is obsessed with fear, as he shows the nice young girl on the first floor, Helen (Anna Massey), the films his own father made of him when he was a child – his father awakening him in the middle of the night with lizards or bright lights, or forcing him to stand next to the dead body of his mother. This has created the monster he is today, watching the movies of his victims dying late at night, the footage he’s taken surreptitiously of the police investigations.

The repulsion of the public to the movie may zero in on Boehm’s portrayal of Mark – though not wholly sympathetic, it is a quiet acting job, a damaged individual moving through a world that still confuses him on many levels. Anna Massey is quite remarkable as Helen, refreshingly unglamorous and real; her growing relationship with Mark offers an impossible rehabilitation, a normalcy he can hope for, but never truly achieve. When, after spending time with the bubbly Helen, we encounter more typical, idealistically beautiful movie women (and Mark’s chosen victims), they seem alien creatures, rare birds flitting through his world.

Peeping TomOne of these is Vivian, the stand-in for the vacuous star of the vapid comedy movie Mark is working on, who stays after hours to do a bit of film with the cameraman that she hopes will finally garner her the attention she needs to progress beyond stand-in work. Vivian is played by Moira Shearer, the star of Powell’s earlier The Red Shoes, and it’s hard not to read into her subsequent death the possibility of Powell murdering his own career. But that’s the sound of a guy putting way too much thought into his movie watching.

peep-killPeeping Tom, in keeping with its themes of voyeurism, is also one of the, if not the, first movie to give the audience the killer’s Point Of View during the murder scenes. They are seen, as by Mark, through the viewfinder of a camera, but that is not a fourth wall audiences of the time were expecting to crumble, or even wanted.

Peeping Tom opened in 1960, a few months before Psycho, a similar movie which is no less disturbing (and yes, there are parts of Peeping Tom that are legitimately hard to watch). Hitchcock recieved no such blowback from his seedy little horror movie. Is it because he was Hitchcock, a director who had never made a movie like Tales of Hoffman or A Matter of Life and Death? Or was it because Psycho was in black and white?

2043_597bLike Blood and Black LacePeeping Tom is in Eastmancolor, and though not as lurid as the op-art palette of Bava, this is still the director who manipulated color so brilliantly in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The color here is lush and realistic, giving the world an unmistakable texture; it is no mistake that Mark’s murder movies are shot in black and white. Realistically, it’s a process he can perform in his own home darkroom, but in the world of this disturbed young man, it is also easily managed, stark. It allows him to concentrate on the fear of his victims, undistracted. And as I believe Hitchcock himself once stated about Psycho, black and white can be distancing, a reminder it’s only a movie. Or maybe it was Kubrick, talking about shooting Lolita in monochrome.

I think Lubitsch’s point was Technicolor (or as seen here, Eastmancolor) is actually a hyperreal process; the colors it produces are gorgeous, but unrealistically vibrant, a method put to good use in lighthearted fare, fantasy. That is true for the most part, certainly true for Lubitsch and his works; but it is the role of artists to ignore such strictures. Without that defiance, we would never have any art at all.

The real kicker is neither of these movies is really available (in the forms I viewed) in the US. Blood and Black Lace for the reasons I mentioned above, and Peeping Tom… well, the rights currently belong to Studio/Canal, and all Amazon offers are Marketplace links to a Chinese blu-ray. A sad state of affairs for lovers of the beautiful… and the horrible.

The Memorial Crapfest

It had been six months since the last Crapfest. There are many reasons for that. The holidays, certainly. There was also the fact that I was really tired of the cat-herding involved with setting a date that everyone was available. It was just much easier to find a day to meet with Rick, or Dave, or both, and just quietly watch some movies.

Life, though, has a way of forcing our hands.

A couple of weeks ago, in my semi-annual bitching about my life post, I mentioned that I skipped out on the memorial service of an acquaintance because that evening was the only chance I had to rest, recoup and heal in a physically grueling week. The deceased was Mark, who was responsible for such Crapfest entries as Skyscraper, The Black 6, and Evil Town. It wasn’t a memorial service, but a Celebration of Life (Mark would not have appreciated a moribund memorial service, not at all) and it was apparently crowded, which is to the good.

I’m a simple man, and I memorialized Mark the best way I knew: by inflicting terrible movies upon my fellow man, as he would.

The evening began with host Dave testing out his new AV setup with the first 20 minutes of Pacific Rim. Now, Pacific Rim is not crap. It is, however, quite loud. I sat and stewed that every time I tried to start things out nicely with some vintage Rolling Stones or Tom Jones, I get castigated for daring to put some “quality” into everybody’s precious crap. No one understands that this only makes the scalpel cut deeper. Yet here is Dave, receiving no such complaints while he projects giant robots punching kaiju.

maxresdefault

NOT. CRAP.

When you’re the host, you get to do stuff like this.

But you know when nobody complains about “quality” in a Crapfest? When that quality is in the form of cartoons. I curated another set of cartoons, if only because Mark had really enjoyed the Halloween set at the last Crapfest. We start off easy with Feed the Kitty, one of Chuck Jones’ best, followed by Tex Avery’s Bad Luck Blackie, which is its polar opposite: in the first, a bulldog adores a little kitten; in the other, a bulldog continually tries to kill a little kitten.

Tom & Jerry were actually the worst about this.

Tom & Jerry were actually the worst about this.

The next section grew out of a discussion that Dave, Rick and I had after watching Diplomaniacs, about what Dave termed “blackface dynamite” (a scholarly term, to be sure) in cartoons, where an explosion turns everyone onscreen into minstrel show participants. The one instance he could recall with certainty was in Droopy’s Good Deed, which I surprisingly had in its uncensored form… but I still started off with Chew Chew Baby, a 1958 Harveytoon that played semi-regularly in the weekday morning cartoon slot, alongside the Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat cartoons. It terrified me, and in short screwed me up for some time. It was a horrible thing to show a 5 year-old, and once again it is temporarily on YouTube, so look quick:

Oh, all right, here’s the censored Droopy scene in Japanese, which doesn’t make it any better:

Surprisingly, there are some (pretty awful quality) examples of the Betty Boop cartoon I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You, featuring Bimbo and Koko being chased by the giant flying head of Louis Armstrong:

Again, I fully expect all of these to be purged from YouTube in the next week.

I laid out my usual four movies to be voted on. Dave was having none of this voting crap, however (the fascist), and snatched up the recently-released Sorceress DVD. I have gone into Sorceress in far too much detail elsewhere, so let me be brief, and you can visit me twenty years ago at your leisure.

Sorceress is yet another Roger Corman-produced New World Pictures attempt to cash in on the sword and sorcery fad. It was directed by Jack Hill, who has a bunch of good, influential cinema under his belt, like Coffy and Switchblade Sisters. He asked that his name be removed from the movie. It is an intriguing script, full of amazing effects that Corman was not willing to pay for, so what you’re actually watching is a cheap piece of junk. It does feature the Harris twins (Playboy Playmates) and their nudity, Frampton the Barbarian, and for some reason, a Viking and his traveling companion, a satyr. I’m usually pretty forgiving about the acting in these things, but in this one it gets pretty dire.

Viking

“And my axe! …except I don’t have one.”

The major heartbreak in all this: Jack Hill wanted Sid Haig to play Pando, the satyr, but Corman wouldn’t pay for that, either. I weep over the loss of this portrayal. And you know what else is not in Sorceress? A sorceress! None. Zip. Zero. Corman apparently took a list of possible titles to a local high school and asked them which movie they’d go see. “Why, the one that gives me a chance to see boobies,” they replied, and so it was.

After this, Alan had brought something. When Alan brings something, it is always horrific. This time, it was, at least, horrific and short. It was the premiere episode of the shortest-lived M*A*S*H* spin-off ever, W*A*L*T*E*R*. Yes, Gary Burghoff’s shot at a show featuring his Radar O’Reilly character.

There are a few points of interest: using one of the best episodes of M*A*S*H* as a springboard – the one featuring a TV crew filming a documentary of the 4077th – a “Where are they now?” special catches us up on what happened to Radar – excuse me, Walter – in the intervening years. He lost the family farm and got abandoned on his wedding day, among other things. So now he is a beat cop in St. Louis.

walter2Now, Walter using his Radar O’Reilly powers to solve crimes is the series I would have tuned in to every week. Instead, what we have here is some gently uplifting comedy about how being a nice guy and having an affinity for animals makes Walter a good cop. Any warm feelings toward the show engendered by having Dick Miller crop up as the manager of a burlesque house besieged by warring strippers is wasted by the fact that Walter’s eventual love interest is played by Victoria Jackson. Possibly before she went insane, but still.

You know what? Screw you. Why should I be the only one to suffer?

There needed to be some filler while dinner was grilled (We were too wrapped up in W*A*L*T*E*R* to attend to such things, it seems), and this fell to me. I had two trailer compilations, labeled “Adventure” and “Satanism” “Satan!” chose Paul, enthusiastically. He would regret that.

There are a lot of movies with “Satan” and “The Devil” in their titles, and the most amazing thing about this is that most of these movies are boring. How is this even possible? They don’t even have enough good stuff in them to make a good trailer, and this is sad.

fitnessRick had prepared a ton of hamburger patties. Dave imperiously strode through the kitchen, proclaiming, “You will have double cheeseburgers! This is the LAW!!!” In a rare gesture of restraint, I only had two double cheeseburgers. I miss those double cheeseburgers. They were good double cheeseburgers.

(Why yes, I did just have my semi-annual visit to my doctor, during which we discussed my weight gain. I told her it was all Rick’s fault. She sighed and scribbled something in the TO BE KILLED column.)

lost planetThen Dave put on his choice. It was a choice that would make us miss boring old Satan. Like many of Dave’s choices, it had more names than a petition against closing a local community center. The name it had chosen for the evening was Galaxy Destroyer, but it is apparently better known as simply Galaxy or Battle for the Lost Planet (“uncensored TV version of Kampf um den verlorenen Planeten”) or “Do you even watch these fucking things before you show them?”

SO there’s this thief named Harry Trent (Matt Mitler) who has stolen a very valuable data tape, and hijacks a space shuttle to escape the security guards chasing him. First problem: he damaged the shuttle and can’t maneuver it, so he has to take a comet’s route back to Earth, which will take five years. Luckily (if not realistically) , there is sufficient fuel and food for this. Second problem: he passed a fleet of wannabe Vogons who reduce the Earth to a scorched black ball.

So after five years of komedy, like discovering he also broke the ship’s stove so that the food is crap and drawing a naked woman on a pillow to seduce, Trent returns to an Earth that has regrown into a bunch of B-movie communes, and discovers he has become a legend, because the data tape he stole will operate a mega-weapon that will destroy the pig-faced aliens. He picks up a feisty liberated woman (Denise Coward), runs into space crabs, has to deal with Mad Dog Kelly, the Maddest Mad Man on the Q Morning Zoo… no I’m sorry, he’s Joe Genitissi in a role that should have gone to Frank Stallone, a Mad Max wannabe who thinks all women should willingly be in his harem and Trent fights him to the death AND OH MY GOD WILL YOU JUST END I REALLY MISS BORING SATAN.

semistalloneSemi-Stallone gets Trent into the Mega-weapon complex and finds out it can kill anybody or anything just as long as the particulars can be programmed into it. Even with the data tape, the surviving scientist (Bill MacGlaughlin) can’t figure out how to program it to kill the aliens. Semi-Stallone says that’s because he’s “too cordial” and he just has to program in human beings and tell the machine to kill everything else. Congratulations, asshole, you just destroyed the biosphere, animals, insects, bacteria and all.

But no, this works, and the aliens dissolve like the demons at the end of the original Evil Dead, but this is deemed so cool that they show many, many instances of it until even that becomes boring. Gaaaah.

This is the work of Brett Piper, who some of you will know from A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, and you are nodding sagely right now.  Some fair stop-motion animation, almost nudity (“MY movie had boobies,” I once again entoned from the back), komedy, and some tiresome social commentary.

Dave sneered that we had lost our “bad movie legs”. See for yourself, the three minutes where the movie almost got exciting:

And lest that make you think you might actually want to watch this, here’s the actual trailer:

The only comment on YouTube:

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 12.31.32 PM

And you know what else wasn’t in Galaxy Destroyer, besides entertainment value? A galaxy, being destroyed or not.

Sometime during this Paul scapered off into the night, claiming work the next morning (he was lying, he wanted to watch the Rockets game in peace. Incidentally, they lost that night.) and also Erik, claiming a hangover (the veracity of this is unknown). This left Dave, Rick, Alan and myself. “What else you got?” asked Dave. I presented two discs which I knew to be around an hour long. “What else you got?” he asked again, and I realized I was the only person in the room who had to get up for work the next day.

Short sleep rations are a fact of my life. You don’t scare me.

Can-que_e39fe8ffI presented two more movies. And with some sort of hell-spawned wisdom, Dave chose the movie that would be of a fit with the rest of the evening: The Return of the Five Deadly Venoms, which has nothing to do with the earlier movie, Five Deadly Venoms. It is, in fact, a re-titling of Crippled Avengers, because people are idiots.

Chan Kuan-Tai plays To, a famous kung fu hero, whose wife and child are hideously mangled by enemies (To then kills the scumbags with one tiger blow each). His son survives, though his arms have been cut off, and To raises him to be a great fighter with iron arms that have some proto-Tony Stark weaponry in them. They also become colossal jerks, ruling the local village with an iron (ha!) fist, and crippling most of the cast of Five Deadly Venoms for various minor infractions, like talking back or bumping into them on the street.

So, a newly blind man, a deaf-mute, a legless guy, and a brain-damaged hero who tried to help them (but still has excellent kung fu skills in his muscle memory), learn kung fu and come back to rid the world of To and his iron-fisted son. If you need more details, once again you can commune with my younger self.

Chang Cheh’s Venom movies (as they are known) tend to end in spectacular fight scenes that rely more on acrobatic skills than martial artistry, but the fights are so dizzying, like a gymnastic tournament gone ballistic, that it is damned near impossible not be sucked in. Another special shout out goes to Wang Lung Wei as To’s second-in-command, whose battle cry of “Let’s go!” whenever his men were losing, became the quote of the evening.

It washed away the Boring Satan and Boring-er Galaxy Destroyers and ended the night on an up-beat. Nyah nyah on Erik and Paul who have to nurse their delicate psyches through horrid memories of Galaxy Destroyer when they think of this night, and not the exhausting final fight of Crippled Avengers or the ta-tas of the Harris Twins (“My movie had boobies!”)

And rest assured that Mark is laughing at us all, and probably making a joke about an obscure Richard Burton movie.

Looks like I’m back to my cat-herding duties.

 

 

2 Films, 2 Women

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(Bit of a warning here. There are spoilers ahead. Admittedly, one of the movies is from 1929, but the other is from 2014. All warned? Good.)

Professional duties keep interfering with stuff that doesn’t pay, like my mumbling about film. Well, that’s life. So when I found myself with a morning free, I decided it was time to actually climb back on that horse and watch one of those movies I keep telling myself I’m going to watch. I am unsure whether it was because there was bright sunshine outside my home office or because of the movie itself that I felt so ambivalent about what I was watching.

600full-pandora's-box-posterWhat I was watching was GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, which is called things like “classic” and “the greatest silent movie ever made”. I’ve run into this before, movies that smart people positively gush over and yet I find myself unmoved (the ones that quickly come to mind are The Third Man, The Thief of Bagdad and Vertigo). Pandora’s Box is also called “surprisingly modern”, and perhaps that is what is working against it, in my eyes.

This is the story of Lulu, played famously by Louise Brooks, who is held up as sort of the platonic ideal of the flapper. Lulu is a young woman who is uninhibited, sexy and at the same time terribly naive; she lives fully in the moment, with little regard for the past or any apprehension as to where her actions may lead her. As the movie opens, she is the mistress of publishing magnate Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner), an older man who is trying to end the relationship so he can marry the daughter of the Minister of the Interior. Getting Lulu cast as a lead singer in his son’s (Frances Lederer!) new musical revue doesn’t do the trick, either, when Schön shows up backstage with his fiancée and Lulu refuses to dance “for that woman!” It’s a ruse that allows her to once again get Schön under her sway, and as his engagement is ruined, he marries Lulu, although he assures his son “It will be the death of me.”

Pandora-s-Box-pandoras-box-1929-15443286-1562-2000Well, it does indeed, when on his wedding day, Schön, in a fit of jealous depression, hands Lulu a gun and commands her to kill herself before he does it himself. In the ensuing struggle, Schön is fatally shot. Lulu is sentenced to five years for manslaughter, but her lowlife friends manage to spring her and smuggle her out of the country. While in hiding, she runs afoul of a white slaver, and manages to get everybody in her entourage murdered or ruined, until she winds up in a drafty garret in London. Desperately turning to prostitution, her first client is Jack the Ripper. And finally, the tale is over.

Now. The movie is based on two extremely popular German plays by Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. The story, starting with relationship soap operatics and transforming into melodramatic tragedy, was popular but controversial. Further controversy followed the movie version when Pabst cast American Louise Brooks as Lulu, a character considered to be thoroughly German, replacing Marlene Dietrich at the last moment (this actually freed up Dietrich to make The Blue Angel, so no harm, no foul).

4505665140_8b6f800bbdDietrich, though, would not have been a good fit for Lulu; when one thinks of Dietrich, one thinks of worldliness, and it is essential to the story that Lulu be pretty unaware of the truths of the world she moves through. A world run by men, who attempt to own her in one way or another, often quite literally. The one malicious act Lulu performs (more out of a childish jealousy than any true malice) is the scuttling of Schön’s engagement, from which all her future woes will descend. That once she is rescued from the courtroom by her friends, she returns to Schön’s home and takes an unhurried bath reveals more about the way she feels she moves through this world than anything else. Even at her lowest ebb, she charms Jack the Ripper into throwing away his knife and possibly seeking redemption, however momentary, in her arms. It’s not her fault her old friend, probable first pimp and possible father, Schigolch (Carl Goetz) left a knife on the table.

maxresdefaultThe title Pandora’s Box comes from the speech the prosecutor makes at Lulu’s trial, who claims that Lulu is the Pandora’s Box that released all sorts of evil into the life of Schön. It’s actually kind of a stupid speech, but it serves to set where Lulu exists in this world: something to be controlled. That’s the thing with all these myths and legends that have been used to rationalize the second-class citizenry of women through the centuries: whether it’s curiosity about what’s inside a box or a taste for apples – either way, presented as forms of seeking knowledge – they unleashed evil into the world, or original sin, or whatever the hell, and that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in, and it’s all their fault.

This ignores the fact that when Pandora opened the box a second time, she unleashed Hope into the world. And that Pandora, Eve, and any number of women whose stories have been lost also had to live in the world with evil, and sin, and general assholery. What the prosecutor doesn’t get is that Schon’s morbid determination that Lulu must equal death is what has unleashed the evils of the world onto Lulu. Of course not. Schön was a man, after all. He’s blameless in the eyes of the court – the world, even.

pandorasBox-criterionThe character I feel the most sympathy for is the Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), a tuxedo-wearing lesbian who is just as smitten, if not moreso, with Lulu than any of the men, but is cast away towards the end to distract one of the members of Lulu’s increasingly desperate entourage, the trapeze artist Quast (Krafft-Raschig). Geschwitz is probably the best match for Lulu in the entire film, and her character’s eventual fate is particularly tragic.

It may be due to the comparative rarity of Louise Brooks movies that Pandora’s Box owes some of its lustre; Pabst warned Brooks she could end up much like Lulu if she didn’t mend her ways, and by her own admission, he was correct – her career lasted hardly another eight years.

Don’t get me wrong, though, this is a well-made movie. There is a reason it is held up as one of the crown jewels of Weimar-era cinema. The scenes backstage at the musical revue are quite entertaining, featuring comedian Sig Arno as a stage manager so harried he seems likely to explode into quivering pieces at any moment.

The “surprisingly modern” aspect just played against it, in my viewing, and that’s likely on me. Once again, having seen the movies that inspired it through the years renders any innovation fairly moot; but it is still worth seeing, if only for that fact.

Girl posterI wanted to contrast this with the movie I watched directly afterwards, made 85 years later: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature-length version of her earlier short of the same name was getting quite a lot of talk on the festival circuit, and recently made the jump to home video, so I can finally say I’m gratified to find the praise earned.

Seemingly set in Iran (but filmed in California), Girl is the tale of, well, The Girl (Sheila Vand), a vampire who haunts a run-down city called Bad Town. The nature of the place is revealed early on, when our other protagonist, young Arash (Arash Marandi) walks across a bridge, and in the dry ditch below, we see bodies left to rot in the sun. Lots of bodies.

agwhaan2The Girl has a peculiar moral sense in such a messed-up place. Except for an unfortunate wino, we mostly see her kill men who are mistreating women, like the abusive pimp and drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains). She terrorizes one poor urchin into being “a good boy… or I’ll feed your eyes to lions!” One of the most haunting images of the story is The Girl riding through the night on her purloined skateboard, her chador flowing behind her like Dracula’s cape, or bat wings.

The Girl will meet Arash in one of the more delicious meet cutes in some time, as her perambulations in the night streets is interrupted by the sight of Arash, who was somewhat unwillingly dosed with Ecstasy at a costume party. He is dressed as Count Dracula, and is staring raptly at a street light. “I’m a vampire,” he informs the vampire. “But don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” Completely lost in his drugged state, she wheels him to her home on the skateboard.

Girl-Walks-Home-Alone-at-Night-Arash-Marandi-and-Sheila-VandThe growing relationship between The Girl and Arash is gently clumsy, perverse, and erotic in all the right ways, but never explicit; Amirpour manipulates the alternately shrinking and expanding space between the two beautifully. The Girl’s backstory, related by Amirpour in the featurettes and the enclosed graphic novel, is that she is early 200 years old, lonely and sad; she went to the desert to kill herself in the searing sun but keeps losing her courage; thus she finds herself in Bad Town. Vand is quite remarkable, standing out from a uniformly excellent cast; she plays well the stillness of a creature who has been so many places, and has been alive for so long, that nothing is worth hurrying or getting excited about. Her large, expressive eyes say a lot.

The parallels with Pandora’s Box are obvious, even beyond the black-and-white format, the dialogue in Farsi so we’re still reading white intertitles. Once again, we have a young man setting out on a journey with the woman who killed his father. This time though, he hesitates, actually pondering the course he is setting… and then continuing on. It’s that moment of reflection that gives the ending a slightly more upbeat feeling, a feeling of hopeful adventure instead of a descent into tragedy.

A-Girl-Walks-Home-Alone-at-Night-2014Whereas Lulu has no real agency in the world, The Girl seemingly has nothing but. If Lulu, as Frank Wedekind said, is constantly surprised by living in a world “riven by the demands of lust and greed”, The Girl long ago realized the parameters of that world and acts upon it, in her small way. Conversely, Lulu seems to expect the attention lavished upon her, but The Girl is surprised that Arash finds something worthwhile in her, something worth developing. They are mirror images in a very dark, very screwed-up world.

The Week of Doom

Warning: mindless jabbering and sullen bitching this time.

FRIDAY MORNING:

The worst of the week is, I think, over. What’s left is two days of shows that my body does not want to do. Last night was the local Candidate Debates. I usually manage to pawn off the heavier lifting and loading on younger and stronger backs, but attrition has been so heavy this year that I am the younger and stronger back (lies, all lies). So loading in, loading out (both in heavy rain) and an evening spent at a camera have resulted in not only my recent back pains intensifying, but the bad leg waking up and my good leg telling it to shut the hell up, it has a hangover.

Balwing BusinessmanSo my current life’s goal is to somehow engineer my professional life such that I can actually have weekends again. This requires long, hard looks at what I’m doing for a living. The major problem with my jobs – I work and pay taxes on four of them (because, remember, I am a moocher and a taker) – is that none of them are full-time; I have managed to juggle them for some time now, and this week was one of those instances where everything intersected and suddenly everybody needed me. I skipped out on the memorial service of an acquaintance because I desperately needed that evening to rest and heal.

And really, I’m tired of being envious and somewhat angry every time somebody posts a “Yay, it’s the weekend!” message or graphic. On one level, that is the choice I made when I decided to become an actor. On a deeper level, I am tired of acting for drunks and assholes. Would I feel better about this if I were doing – and here’s a label I hate, but like all labels, it has its uses – “legitimate” theater? Possibly. It’s nice to have an audience that, you know, actually wants to be there to listen.

Realize that this is exhaustion, pain and bitterness talking. I will be at my shows this weekend, and as usual, hit my marks and give it my all and eat ibuprofen like it was candy afterwards. Exhaustion and pain from once again humping equipment, bitterness from the economic necessity of doing same.

Let’s leave that for now and go to something that’s less rancorous, something that intrigues me: I own a Kindle, but I still pay lip service to physical books. It is a toss-up as what is going to collapse and kill me first in my home office: the stacks of movies or the stacks of books (Books are in the lead in that betting pool, adjust your wagers accordingly).

platypusA couple of months back, on my moribund Tumblr site, I reposted the cover of Arthur Byron Cover’s The Playpus of Doom, because it’s a fun title to contemplate and a good read besides, which has gone out of print. Some discussion of the book and its author followed. I discovered that there was no Kindle edition of Platypus, and the vintage paperbacks were outrageously expensive. But there was a Kindle version of his first book, Autumn Angels, which I loved, and paperbacks of its sequel, An East Wind Coming, were dirt cheap. I remember being somewhat disappointed in it, but at that price, sure, why not revisit it? So I received my yellowing package and flipped it open and oy.

Were all paperbacks like this? Cramped type crowded onto the page? I couldn’t read this.

So I guess that e-readers have spoiled me for my beloved paperbacks. Or maybe it was just this book from this publisher, but memory tells me this is not the case. It’s that my progressive bifocals and tired eyes need a less populated, cleaner page to enjoy the printed (ha!) page as I once did. I also bought two larger trade paperbacks of Ellis Peter Cadfael novels and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which I also need to revisit, and they are more comfortable to read.

Almost all my recent reading has been on the Kindle – saving a few dollars, and not adding to the teetering piles of bound paper that will someday crush me. I miss not being able to look up and see the titles with the easy familiarity of physical friendship, but as I get older and the type seems to get smaller, I’m glad that technology has given me a way to continue to do something that I love – even as I try to find ways to allow myself the time to do that.

SATURDAY:

There is the other side to that love of new technology, and it was brought home Friday night when I came home – once again, in heavy rain – to a dark house in a dark neighborhood, something I hadn’t experienced since the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. Used candles and flashlight that night, and I could, at least, read my Kindle Fire. As long as the battery held out.

LivingWithoutElectricityMy wife’s phone was dead, mine was halfway there – but I had charged both it and the Kindle before I left for the show. My scripts are all on the Kindle (and yes, I do read over my script before every show). Sleep was fitful that night. The next morning my wife and I went looking for a restaurant with power (luckily plentiful) and she used the car charger to get her phone back up to a minimal level.  After eighteen hours, the power came back on and I gratefully grabbed a couple of hours of very deep sleep in a cooler house before I had to rise and get ready for another show.

God, I’ll be glad when this week will be over and I’ll be able to grouse and complain about other peoples’ work and not my own. You probably will be, too.

LATER SATURDAY NIGHT:

UPDATE: It’s over. I’m too tired and sore to go to sleep. Crap.

Oh, yes, speaking of which: that Crapfest I was looking forward to? Postponed. Host Dave got a paying gig. I identify. I just finished off a bunch of those. And just as well, that probably would have been enough to finish me off.

I’m turning this off and going to bed now.

Three Movies That Don’t Belong Together

100April is shaping up to be a killer month, as in next week (known throughout the land as “@#$!ing Tax Week”) will not only damage me financially but physically, a week of non-stop labor that will (at least) end with a Crapfest, but it’s a Crapfest that largely exists because one of our number passed away recently. More on that later. If I survive.

So at least I watched some movies at Rick’s before this horrible month started. We tend to put together three movies that have some sort of connection, but this time we decided to get all eclectic and see what happened. 1308402322One of the things that this “Watch These 100 Movies” Challenge is doing is, at least, getting me off my ass as far as Charlie Chaplin goes, and it turns out Rick hadn’t really watched any of his stuff either. One I had on hand was Modern Timesso off we went.

The major memory I carry with me from my first feature-length Chaplin, The Gold Rush, is that in the opening shot I was immediately introduced to Charlie Chaplin, Serious Filmmaker. I’m not kidding about that. That proto-Herzog shot involving hundreds of people made me reconsider my opinion of Chaplin instantly. So what, then, are we to make of Modern Times, an almost entirely silent movie released in 1936, almost ten years after The Jazz Singer ushered in the era of talkies?

modern_timesIn the extended riff on Metropolis that opens Modern Times, the only time human speech is heard is through machinery: the head of the steel mill commanding his foreman to speed things up through a TV screen (science fiction in 1936!) and a sales pitch recorded on a Victrola record. Everything else? as if it were filmed fifteen, twenty years earlier: silent, with only the occasional sound effect. It’s hard arguing with the result: a master working within a format with which he is intimately familiar and comfortable.

As the story progresses and the title character (and modern times is a character in this movie) frustrates and blockades the Little Tramp at every turn, in the final sequence, even he must give himself over to synchronized sound, with – just as The Jazz Singer did – a song. Even then, losing the lyrics written on his cuffs, he has to resort to pantomime and nonsense.

Modern Times was made after Chaplin had spent a year and a half traveling the world, and talking with people as diverse as Henry Ford and Mahatma Gandhi. He returned to an America still deeply mired in the Great Depression, probably not a little politicized – and it shows. The opening section in the factory is based on Chaplin’s visit to Henry Ford’s famous assembly line, where young men were abandoning farm work for better money and, after a few years working that line, suffering nervous breakdowns. After the Little Tramp suffers a similar breakdown, he proceeds to drift from one attempted job to another, where any whiff of unionizing is visited by police wielding batons. This movie was Exhibit A when the House Un-American Activities Committee decided Chaplin was a Commie. chaplin-modern-times-1936-granger

A breath of fresh air is Chaplin’s then-lover, Paulette Goddard, as The Gamin, a young lady down on her luck, who manages to escape the juvenile authorities when the rest of her family is packed off to an orphanage. On the waterfront, the Gamin is like Tarzan (right down to wearing what appears to be one of Jane’s tossed-off dresses), and her and the Tramp’s run-ins with the Law leads to a partnership alternately heartbreaking and uplifting (and hilarious, needless to say). Once they finally seem to have found their ideal place, it’s those same forces of the Law that rousts them (all other problems solved, they still want to bust The Gamin for vagrancy), and they find themselves on the road again. That isn’t a new sensation for the Little Tramp, but he has a companion. Again, not new, but this time we have the feeling that companion is an equal, and that’s nice. And if Chaplin had to put a coda to The Little Tramp character, the silent era in general, and a last word (ha!) to an America in distress – “Buck up! Never say die! We’ll get along!” ain’t a bad one, at all.

I don’t give out five-star ratings easily. Modern Times got one instantly, and without a second thought. bloodthirsty

We had decided to place a “palette cleanser” in the second position, acting like a raspberry sorbet between courses of a meal. No sorbet this, however, what we had was a blu-ray of Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers. (Andy Milligan on blu. This is an age of wonders.)

Bloodthirsty Butchers is Milligan’s screen version of “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, a piece of penny dreadful literature that dates back to 1846. Lots of folks have taken a crack at the story, including Tod Slaughter – there’s even a ballet, for pete’s sake. This is one of two movies Milligan actually shot in England in 1970. (The other one, The Body Beneath, gets my vote as the almost watchable of his films), instead of trying to make Staten Island look like period Europe. Tim Lucas put it best: Andy Milligan’s movies play out like filmed community theater productions. There are one or two good actors, many mediocre ones, and some oy-god-get-off-the-stage actors. And somebody’s mom (in this case, Milligan himself) sewed the costumes out of whatever was available.

The heartbreak of nailess Milligan hand.

The heartbreak of nailess Milligan hand.

The most fun was finding modern devices in the background, and how every room has the curtains drawn to avoid the 1970 neighborhoods outside; the modern hairstyles and makeup. And yelling “WHO ARE YOU??” every time a new character suddenly cropped up. (Actually, the most fun I had was fantasizing a 40-ish Stephen Sondheim, chilling out from the intense workshopping of Company and catching this crap at a 42nd St. theater. Thinking, “Hey, I bet I could get a musical out of this!”)

Watching Milligan movies is perversely fascinating, but draining. I really can only manage one a year. And I still have these other two blu-rays…

This part, at least, did have us screaming in horror.

This part, at least, did have us screaming in horror.

How was the blu, you might ask? Well, it’s quite clear, but so obviously a 16mm print that was blown up to 35mm the grain should get a screen credit. That’s not the fault of Code Red, who put out the blu – that was standard operating procedure for Milligan and William Mishkin. How else do you think he made movies for only $12,000? Milligan always had his framing too tight, so if you’re watching this on a modern 16:9 TV, reset your aspect ratio to 4:3. Andy had enough shortcomings on his own without adding to them by cropping off what little frame he had.

And I couldn’t find a trailer online. Lucky you. IF

So what were we cleansing our palettes between? Well, Rick has been having a bit of a problem with the entertainment he enjoyed as a youth. Most recently, a few months ago, we watched an episode of Space 1999 which murdered that particular sector of his childhood (the episode had an implied-nude Sarah Douglas, and endless scenes of a slow-motion bouncing ball). Then, a month or so ago, he watched an old cable favorite, Foxes ,with terrible results. So his next attempt to capture the cable glory of his childhood was approached with not a little fear. The movie was Thief, and as I put it, “This is a Criterion blu-ray. How bad can it be?”

Thief was Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature, after a very well-received TV movie, The Jericho Mile, gave him enough clout to convince James Caan to take the title role. Caan plays Frank, who is, you might guess, a thief, and an awfully good one. His two-man crew (one of which is Jim Belushi) and he plan and perform heists that specialize only in cash or diamonds locked inside seemingly invulnerable vaults. This eventually garners the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky, a TV actor also making the jump to movies), a godfather type who wants Frank to work for him exclusively.

caan weldFrank carries in his wallet a photo collage of the ideal life he wants: house, kids, wife. He convinces a waitress he’s attracted to, Jessie (Tuesday Weld) to be the wife and mother in the collage, and once she agrees, Frank also agrees to Leo deal: a couple of big jobs to sweeten his retirement pot, and then he will retire to his carefully-managed secret identity as the owner of a car lot. And that, as they say, is when the trouble starts.

Mann insisted on authenticity, not only from his actors (and the diner scene between Jessie and Frank is still taught in method acting classes), but from his story: there are several actual high-profile thieves in the cast, who were consultants, and lent the movie their tools of the trade (like that huge drill Caan uses in the opening scene). Apparently Caan learned so much under their tutelage he actually cracked a safe in his sister’s house when the mechanism fouled up. burn bar

Rick was gratified: the movie was actually better than he remembered it. For my part, I had owned the soundtrack for something like mumble mumble years, oh, all right, I bought it when it came out in 81. This was only Tangerine Dream’s second American theatrical score, but I had been buying their albums since about 77 or so. So it was nice to finally see the images that inspired some of the music.

But how did I like the movie? Thief is very good, primarily for the reason Rick put forth: its balance between character and technique, Frank’s life and his trade, is almost perfect. Mann is stretching visual muscles here that are eventually going to coalesce into Miami Vice and shape fashion and entertainment for a good portion of the 80s. And the choice of Tangerine Dream is perfect for the neon-lit vistas and brutal technology Frank employs – sometimes the score is almost indistinguishable from the  roar of the drill.

It’s also fun to see other members of the Mann Repertory Company crop up – William Peterson as a bouncer in a bar, Dennis Farina as a gunsel. Good stuff.

Now I need to finish this up, post it, and gird my loins for the next two weeks. I may get to slide in a movie or two, but I won’t get to write about them, until the latter part of the month. Enjoy what’s left of your Easter baskets, kiddies, and be excellent to each other. I should be back.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

100And just when I thought I was finished with film noir for the moment, Olive Films goes and puts Lady from Shanghai out on blu-ray. I’d never really had the opportunity to see it before, although I had seen the same three minutes as everybody else: the climax in the hall of mirrors that is justly held up as a masterpiece of cinema.

ladyfromshanghai_1948_mp_40by60But there’s a problem with finally seeing a movie when you’ve been exposed to its peak moment for years (nay, decades), which goes hand-in-hand with a very sad realization: when you are watching any of Orson Welles’ studio-backed pictures you are inevitably watching damaged goods.

Studio interference with The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil is legendary, but it wasn’t until I started digging into Shanghai that I began to be aware of that tale of woe. Welles liked to tell the story of how Lady from Shanghai came to be: The Mercury Theater was opening a musical version of Around the World in Eighty Days and when producer Mike Todd pulled out, the costumes were impounded until Welles came up with the $55,000 owed. He got on the phone to Columbia’s Harry Cohn and offered to write, produce, direct and star in a movie for Columbia, if Cohn would wire him 55 grand immediately. Welles (depending on the telling) either claimed he grabbed a paperback novel off a spinner rack near the phone booth, or a book the girl in the box office was reading: Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake. In either case,Welles had never read it. Cohn bit.

Hey, I'm sold.

Hey, I’m sold.

Cohn also later stated he would never again hire someone to produce, act and star in a movie because then he couldn’t fire any of them.

It is reported that Welles’ first cut of the movie ran 155 minutes. That means that the version I saw is short by almost an hour and ten minutes. Cohn found the movie incomprehensible. The connection between those two facts is obvious.

ladyfromshanghaiWelles plays Mike O’Hara, an itinerant Irish sailor (and such an accent! Sure, and I should have watched it on St. Patrick’s Day, when the blu-ray was released, begorrah!), who falls into the sphere of Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), when he rescues her from some toughs one night in Central Park. Elsa convinces her husband, rich, crippled criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Eliott Sloane) to hire O’Hara as bosun on his yacht for a cruise to the West Coast. Coming along for the ride is Bannister’s rather unbalanced partner, Grisby (Glenn Anders).

This being a noir movie, Elsa’s obvious attraction to O’Hara is going to blossom into a love affair. Grisby, obsessed with the certainty of nuclear war, has a harebrained scheme to fake his death at the hands of O’Hara so he can make off with the insurance money and hide out on a South Seas island while the world goes to hell. O’Hara, desperate for the money to finance a new life for himself and Elsa, agrees. This will backfire spectacularly as O’Hara is arrested for Grisby’s very real murder and finds himself on trial with Bannister as his lawyer.

lady from shanghai 06There are many, many ways is which the plot has been sabotaged to this point by the chainsaw editing. O’Hara sensibly resists Elsa for quite some time, but finally succumbs after a Cohn-mandated song. In fact, there is remarkably little chemistry between Welles and Hayworth, surprising since they were husband and wife at the time (perhaps not surprisingly, as that union didn’t last much longer. It’s possible that the movie was a last attempt to save the marriage – but that also casts a dark shadow on Welles’ insistence that Hayworth cut short her trademark long red hair and bleach it platinum blonde.). The camera has no problem making love to Hayworth in numerous close-ups, however (also mandated by Cohn).

Grisby’s plot to fake his own murder is so unconnected to reality that O’Hara’s agreeing to go along with it renders him the densest of all chumps in a genre built on chumps falling for stupid schemes. When the main problem with the plan is brought up by Bannister at the trial – how was the supposedly dead Grisby going to collect on that insurance? – the audience is muttering “I was saying that a half-hour ago.”

And that trial! Oy, such nonsense piled upon nonsense! Surprise subpoenas, the defense attorney called as a prosecution witness, who then cross-examines himself… well, Anatomy of a Murder it ain’t.

shanghai3O’Hara desperately overdoses on Bannister’s pain pills and uses the chaos to escape (after quite a fight scene in the judge’s chambers. Welles really enjoyed trashing rooms), and this where Lady from Shanghai finally starts developing its own unique character, and the extent of the damage from Cohn’s editors begins to really assert itself.

At the movie’s opening, Elsa tells O’Hara she had worked in Shanghai and Macao. Later, her maid begs O’Hara to take the job, because Elsa is a waif trapped in a nest of vipers; in fact, you can’t find worse traveling companions than Elsa, Arthur and Grisby, all constant passive-aggressive hated and sniping. There is reference to “something” that Bannister has on Elsa, that he used to blackmail her into marriage.

ladyshanghai5Now, as the movie enters its final stretch, a drug-addled O’Hara stumbles through Chinatown, finally hiding in the audience of a Peking Opera. He is effortlessly stalked by Elsa, gliding though the streets, speaking to passers-by in Mandarin. At the theater, she calls a gangster named Li, who arrives and spirits the now-unconscious O’Hara out under the nose of the Police. O’Hara has picked a perilous moment to black out, as he has just discovered, in Elsa’s purse, the gun that killed Grisby.

Yes, Elsa becomes ten times more interesting and complex in that segment, rendering everything she’s done to this point questionable, yet any explanation of how and why seems to be on the cutting room floor.

This leads to the gang’s hideout in an off-season amusement park, and the legendary Hall of Mirrors shootout as O’Hara finally discovers the depths of his chump-dom and the extent of Elsa’s poison noir dame-ness. Apparently as much as twenty minutes was trimmed from this imaginative sequence, and that is a major fucking crime against cinema in particular and art in general.

Lady-3Welles’ intention was to film the story in a fairly documentary fashion, with lots of location shooting (including yet another rich man’s transformation of his wife’s wish for a picnic into a massive, ultimately bitter, production number), and no close-ups, which must have driven Cohn, already upset over the “ruining” of his prime star with a haircut, that much closer to apoplexy. The trial scene is meant to be Brechtian parody, but no one in the intended audience had ever even heard of Bertolt Brecht. The resulting movie is the sad, scarred record of two men fighting to tell a story, each his own way, and neither particularly getting his way.

The Lady from Shanghai opened to indifferent box office and scathing reviews (except in Europe, where Welles was always more appreciated), but has come to be revered as a masterpiece, the “greatest weird picture ever made.”

And you look at it and you think, 155 minutes. Jesus. What did I miss?What did we miss?

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