Another Mess o’ Reviews

100Hey, remember when I said I was extremely busy? That hasn’t changed. Allow me to get on with the dispatches from the Movie Odyssey:

Rififi (1955)

du-rififi-chez-les-hommesThe Hollywood Blacklist keeps showing up in the backstory of movies I watch, with Jules Dassin one of the egregious examples. Like a lot of people in the Depression, he joined the Communist Party and its promise of a brighter future, but quit the party after the Soviet Union signed a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, an unforgivable betrayal for a Jew.  Dassin was sent packing in 1950 after completing the shooting for Night and the City and didn’t direct another movie for four years. Practically penniless in Paris, he shot Rififi on a very low budget, with no stars and production personnel willing to work for lower wages just to observe a well-regarded director at work. The result is one of the first heist movies, and one of the best.

Rififi (we are informed this is French gangster slang for “trouble”) is largely the story of jewel thief Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais) freshly out of jail after five years, having taken the rap for his younger protege, Jo the Swede (Carl Möhner) , whose wife was pregnant at the time. Jo wants his old mentor to join him in a smash-and-grab job at a high-profile jewelry store. Tony’s response is they are instead going to burgle the jewelry store itself, considered a near-impossible job.

Rififi-1The four man gang then proceed to meticulously map out the store, and the ebb and flow of its neighborhood. The heist, when finally enacted, is the centerpiece of the movie, a half-hour sequence without dialogue or music, incredibly tense and exhilarating. It is almost the perfect crime, but the romantic inclinations of the imported Italian safecracker (director Dassin himself) will doom the entire group.

Dassin’s location shooting on The Naked City (inspired by the legendary New York photographer Weegee) stands him in good stead; the streets around the jewelry store become a character in themself. The loving attention to detail is apparent in the depiction of the seedier side of Paris and the criminal demimonde. Our merry band of thieves is likable, the opposing gang that sniffs out a chance for a big payday is vile, right down to kidnapping Jo the Swede’s young son, turning even Tony’s abused former moll against them.

In many ways, this is the proto-Thief, and well worth watching.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise_vintageDoing something like proclaiming you are going to watch a certain 100 movies doesn’t give you the sort of leeway you normally employ in your movie watching, like the time I watched Head to observe Davy Jones’ passing, or The Ruling Class for Peter O’Toole’s. But when somebody stole F.W. Murnau’s skull, I knew it was time to finally watch Sunrise.

This is Murnau’s first American movie, made directly after Faust. The “Two Humans” of the title are a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor, wearing a bad blonde wig, but not as bad as the one Barbara Stanwyck was forced to wear in Double Indemnity), whose martial bliss is undone when a vacationing Woman From The City (Margaret Livingstone), sweeps the Man off his feet with her sophistication. She convinces him to sell his farm and come to the City with her – after he murders his wife by staging an accidental drowning.

The Man can’t go through with the plan, and winds up pursuing his fearful wife into that City, where they rediscover their love on one adventurous, eventful day – but on the return home, their boat capsizes in a sudden storm, and the wife is swept away.

sunrise-murnau-o-brienLike an earlier, highly-regarded silent, The Phantom Carriage, this is some heavy melodrama, but it’s good melodrama. The extremeness of the melodrama in Sunrise is more than matched and countered by the beautifully well-observed humanity of the middle of the movie, where we see the love of the Man and Woman rekindle itself. We can’t help but be swept along their journey, falling in love with them a little ourselves, which only turns the screws tighter in the storm sequence and its aftermath.

This was the first movie to be released with Fox’s new Movietone process, which makes it the first movie with a prerecorded sync score and sound effects, extremely progressive while it was being made. There are two things that are going to lodge in your mind’s eye when you think over the experience, and both are in the City – not location shooting, but an actual, enormous set built by Murnau, and a huge entertainment complex with an equally huge music hall and restaurant attached. Again, a gigantic set built with all the trickery Murnau had mastered in the German cinema, employing forced perspective, midgets in the background to suggest scope, and a ton of extras.

sunrise-fox2.2Sunrise has risen in critical estimation in recent years, moving into Top 100 Movie lists and even cracking a few Top Tens. Why haven’t more people heard of it, then? A month before Sunrise opened, another movie – The Jazz Singer – opened, and suddenly nobody wanted to watch a silent movie. It was talkies or nothing, and Sunrise was a financial disaster.

Murnau would never again be offered the creative and financial freedom he experienced here, and this is a story we will encounter over and over again.  He would only direct three movies before his untimely death in an auto accident in 1931, and cinema is much lessened for that.

Dreadful picture quality on this trailer, but it does give you some idea of the technical artistry Murnau brought to this picture, which, despite its box office failure, won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture:

Then I watched a couple more movies you won’t hear about until October. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty left. Life is trying to crush me with deadlines (This month – July – is in fact going out with an increasingly grinding bang), so the only thing left to do was to go over to Rick’s and watch movies.

Watership Down (1978)

Movie_poster_watership_downRick had been curious about this movie for some time, having only heard about it. That’s not too surprising; although incredibly popular in England, it sank like a stone in its American release. I had only seen it because it had a midnight showing in my college town. I guess it wasn’t Disney, so it wasn’t worth seeing.

Yeah, it’s not Disney.

Based on the novel by Richard Adams, Watership Down is the tale of a group of rabbits fleeing the destruction of their warren, foretold by the Cassandra-like prophet bunny, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers). Their leader, Hazel (John Hurt) turns out to be quite adept in his new role, and they eventually, after many adventures, take up residence on a high hill, content until they realize that they have no women, and the new warren will eventually vanish.

wd3Thus begins another thread of the tale where the largest of the fugitive rabbits, Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) infiltrates the warren of General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). If their former warren was a bit of a fascist outfit. Woundwort and his minions are absolute Nazis. Their captive population cannot reproduce because it is too crowded. Bigwig seeks out a feisty doe who has helped other rabbits escape, and a daring nighttime breakout ensues, aided by the errant gull Kehaar (Zero Mostel, in his final film role), and a boat, a man-made object that Hazel’s clever warren has learned to employ.

The story’s not over yet, but that’s for you to experience yourself. As you probably noticed, this is an adventure story where the characters all just happen to be rabbits. Watership Down is held up as a sterling example of how to adapt a novel to screen, rearranging events and deleting others for the sake of the movie’s general flow, while remaining largely faithful. It is also known as the most violent PG movie ever released – there is never any doubts as to the stakes being played for in the rabbits’ quest, and, well, there will be blood. I’m okay with that, a lot of parents with crying children were not. The British Board of Film Classification apparently was still receiving flak every year for giving it a “U” for “Universal” rating, the equivalent of a G.

Watership3-031115This begs the question as to how much about the brutal nature of life should children be shielded from, and for how long. My own childhood is still bright and terrifying with images of animals being slaughtered for the rural dinner table. That’s not an experience a lot of children went through, even in my childhood. In our increasingly urbanized existence, that number is likely even lower.

But we’re here to talk about movies, aren’t we?

watershipdown-01It ain’t Disney. Though it may look like it, with its multi-plane animation and watercolor backgrounds, it ain’t, and really, it’s much better for that. I’m going to go further, and grumble about the misconception that if it’s animated, it must be for kids, and kids alone, a misconception that endures despite all the boobies Ralph Bakshi and the Heavy Metal movies have plastered across movie screens.

Research also dug up this, which again makes the above mistake: the follow-up to Watership Down, also based on a novel by Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs, is a cartoon for children like Salo is a movie for high school history classes.

There was a second movie Rick and I watched, but you’re going to have to wait until October for that one. So we’ll just go on to:

Playtime (1967)

014-playtime-theredlistOur journey through Jacques Tati‘s oeuvre continued with this, generally acknowledged as his masterpiece. After the international success of Mon Oncle (my personal favorite), Tati used his resulting clout to make what would become the most expensive French film to date, about 2.5 million blooming to over 15 million – in 60s currency – over the course of a three-year shoot. This is the sort of movie-making legend where it is tempting to obsess over the production of the movie rather than the film itself.

Tiring of his M. Hulot character, Tati sought to de-emphasize him with more of an ensemble, a tapestry of characters we follow throughout. Hulot spends the first part of the movie trying to have a meeting with an elusive man in an ultra-modern labyrinth of an office building, eventually becoming swept up with a group of businessmen in an international product expo in another building entirely. His fate is shared by Barbara (Barbara Dennek), a pretty young American who wants to see the true Paris, but is swept along with her group of tourists into the same shopping expo.

playtime-main-reviewTati’s usual bemusement with problematic modern technology and consumerism is given full play here, leading up to one of his most complex and lengthy setpieces ever, possibly even in cinema as a whole: a pretentious restaurant called The Royal Garden, which opens even as the workmen are putting the finishing touches on, well, everything. The evening becomes ever more crowded and chaotic – practically every character introduced in the opening scenes shows up – even as the hastily-finished building begins to collapse around its patrons. It is only when the restaurant begins to fall apart, when the pretensions disintegrate, that the space becomes more perversely human, and the people inside begin to genuinely enjoy themselves.

This argument against overly-structured modern life is echoed in Hulot’s perambulations, where he finally meets the man he never managed to at the beginning, but only when that man is out walking his dog in the evening. That we later see the two part jovially at the beginning of the restaurant sequence, their business apparently concluded, is a rare moment of accomplishment for the perpetually unlucky Hulot.

playtime7Tati set out to make a movie where it was impossible to catch all the jokes at one viewing, that the wandering eye would see something in every nook and cranny of the scenes. It’s like those crowded panels of Mad, drawn by Bill Elder when it was still a comic book. You could fill a book with observations on Playtime, and still not be sure you got it all. As ever, the sound effects are practically half the movie: Tati’s soundscape renders every object onscreen alive.

Jacques LeGrange, Tati’s longtime collaborator, had advised Tati to build his own ultramodern office building for the filming, and then sell it afterwards for a profit. Tati did this, but rather than following his friend’s advice, built an entire complex on leased land that ensured his buildings would eventually be razed – before filming was completed. Besides two other natural disasters that stopped filming and required rebuilding, the process of filming was made laboriously slow by Tati himself, who proved to be such a control freak that Stanley Kubrick would have said, “Dude, chill out!”

playtime2Structurally – and trying to append a structure to Playtime is a mug’s game – it is most similar to Jour de Fete, a lengthy, multi-charactered lead-up to a frantic, hilarious third act, then a cooling-down sequence leading to a melancholy, but touching conclusion. It’s the lack of conventional structure – and probably the comparative lack of Hulot – that made the movie tank horrendously on its release, and Tati – in considerable, ruinous debt – saw his life’s work auctioned away. Like Murnau, he would only make two more movies in his life, and both of those were commissioned work for television. Never again would he have the free rein and freedom given him here, and whether or not that is a good or fair thing is not for me to judge.

With Playtime, Tati attempted to take his game to the next level, and produced a movie that is undeniably ahead of its time. The thing is, I don’t think that, even now, the world has yet caught up with Tati.

Crap of July: The 80s Strike Back

Once more, I survived working the City’s Independence Day festivities, with only slightly more than usual aches and pains afterwards. It was time for celebration, celebration that required little or no work from yours truly, ie., a Crapfest. (Click here for a visual representation of our gatherings, putting the “odd” back in “odyssey”)

Slightly lower attendance this go-round – Paul had a sibling’s party to attend, The Other Dave was recovering from what he described as “eating like Orson Welles for three days”, leaving us with host The Original Dave, Alan, Rick, Erik and myself. Mrs. Dave excused herself and got the hell out of Dodge. Like all of us, she had lived through the 80s, and unlike all of us, she had the sense to know that once was enough.

2278449962_89fbd266b3_oYou see, there was a motif that, unplanned, began to assert itself as the evening wore on, and past a point we stopped resisting and just went with it. And the 80s came, and had their way with us. Roughly.

Dave’s opening salvo was the motivational classic, Mr. T’s Be Somebody… or Be Somebody’s Fool, a direct-to-video outing from 1984 (the hot middle of the VHS boom, a time when something like this being successful in the video market was a real possibility). The intentions behind this are so good, it’s really kind of hard to be mean to it. If it has any weaknesses, it’s that it tries to cover 14 different topics like Peer Pressure, Shyness, Frustration and Styling (featuring “Zina and Zina from San Bernadina”), so it’s like every PBS morning and Disney kid’s show compressed into 52 minutes.

Oh, stop screaming.

T is very game in this whole enterprise, even if he looks very uncomfortable when visiting a street scene that is basically the Shaolin Temple of breakdancing (he does not make it past the first chamber). Guest stars like New Edition and a very young Fergie keep you watching for other possibly hidden details, and I have to say the rap Ice-T wrote for Mr. T is actually pretty good, delivering the message while playing to T’s vocal strengths. It was a fairly easy way to slide into the horrors of the evening.

Well, “fairly easy” gives way to “Necronomicon-level horror” when whatever file Dave has Mr. T residing in on his hard drive then flips over to the pilot episode of The Lost Saucer, a Sid and Marty Krofft monstrosity hailing from 1975 starring Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi as bumbling robots (Nabors is from “the Southern Cosmos”). As it was from 1975, it was purged somewhat speedily, but not before the theme song wormed its way into our brains:

Much easier for us to glom onto than T’s rapping, and it would pop up over and over for the next five hours.

We would need it.

A movie I had been trying to get on the agenda for over a year was The Miami Connection, a strange concoction concerning a group of five orphan tae kwan do black belts who are friends forever, as they will tell us in song. You see, they are also the rock group Dragon Sound, “a new dimension in rock and roll,” the bold new direction being that they dress in karate gis while pretending to play their instruments.

You can be sure that this number was the first time we used The Lost Saucer defensively. The scowling GI Joe with Kung-Fu Grip lookalike who’s so concerned about his sister is the leader of the improv street gang (all their dialogue is obviously – and poorly – improvised), who have some sort of affiliation with the Miami Ninjas, who are taking over the lucrative drug trade. The position of house band in this joint seems more than a paltry paycheck and unlimited well drinks, it must control trade routes from its lofty perch, or something, since the band replaced by Dragon Sound is willing to fight them for it, and when they get tired of having their asses handed to them by Dragon Sound, they employ GI Joe’s Improv Mob to get their asses kicked instead.

miamiconnection_poster-final__smallNone of that synopsis will help you with the horrible line delivery of star/co-director/writer Y.K. Kim, who is a good martial artist but a terrible actor (casting by Y.K. Kim). Two of the band members are similarly good at the kicking, not so hot on the emoting. The other two are the opposite, kind uhhhhhh adequate on the acting, not seen doing much on the fight scenes. They are: the black one (who actually does track down his father, with a shrill “Oh my Godddddd!”) and John Oates. As there is no girl on the band, John Oates is the de facto girl, getting kidnapped and held as bait.

We haven’t even gotten to the biker gang who shows up out of nowhere to provide us with our bare breasts for the R rating. And the final showdown with the Miami Ninjas, in a park that resembles the jungles of Da Nang (Orlando is truly a city of wonders). This movie got kicked around to various distributors, none of whom cared to even give it a video release, and mind you, this was in 1987, when anyfuckingthing could get released on VHS. One guy at Manson International (appropriately) finally agreed to pick it up if they changed the ending (the original, tragic ending required acting, and talk about trying to find water in the middle of a desert…).

Erik had been wanting to see this for a while, and he avowed that it was worth the wait. I was not prepared, however, for how much it hurt Dave, which was a lot. So much that he decided to forego his original planned entry, and also show something horrible and soul-shriveling from the 80s, locking in our course for the evening. And that something terrible was Where the Boys Are 84.

Where_the_Boys_Are_'84There is a fair amount of demented genius in this choice, mainly because I don’t think there was any way in Hell any of us had seen this movie, unless it was by accident while flipping through cable movie channels.

The premise is: you have four college co-eds (Lisa Hartman, Lorna Luft, Wendy Schaal and Lynn-Holly Johnson), who head to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, with no higher mission than to get drunk and laid. Lynn-Holly wants to screw “Conan the Barbarian” – whoever might fit that description – Lisa wants to make time with Camden (Daniel McDonald), the famous classical piano player cousin of the rich Wendy, and Lorna just needs a break from her jealous boyfriend, who will proceed to track her to Lauderdale. Got all that? It’s a sexy madcap romp! Or so we’re told.

It is! It's a sexy madcap romp!

It is! It’s a sexy madcap romp!

The movie itself is not too awful, though keeping track of all the subplots is sort of a full-time job (the tequila sunrises Dave kept bringing into the room didn’t help). A hitchhiker the girls pick up on the way is an itinerant musician named Scott (Russell Todd, leading to many unsaid Time Squad riffs), who is going to be Camden’s chief competition for Lisa’s attention. There’s a Stray Cats wannabe group that keeps cropping up – called, rather nakedly, The Rockats – ensuring that every five minutes I could ask, “Is that Brian Setzer?” no matter who walked across the screen.

The first night, when the girls go out to become, as they put it, “shitfaced” rapidly becomes very uncomfortable, especially when Wendy gets drunk and begins to do a striptease in the middle of the bar (to Rockats accompaniment). I swear to you, the scene was two camera setups away from becoming The Accused before Lisa intervenes.

Of course, if you really want uncomfortable, there’s always this scene:

This movie fails the Bechdel Test, fails it repeatedly and fails it hard. So hard there were probably smoking craters all over Lauderdale from repeated attempts. I will further postulate that its very title implies an impressive fail on that point.

Do I really need to tell you how the various plot threads play out? Lorna and her boyfriend will get back together. Conan the Barbarian turns out to be a tiny-dicked hustler. Wendy gets busted for DUI and starts dating the cop who busted her. (Spoiler: he’s married). Scott publicizes the snooty party Wendy’s mother is throwing for Camden’s big concert so he can crash Lisa’s alone time with Camden. The supposedly comic shenanigans that ensue also include the Rockats – of course – staging an impromptu concert of their own, and the string trio that was supposed to be entertaining the posh crowd start jamming with them. I really could have used more of that.

Camden is confessing that he is having trouble finishing his new suite because he can’t find “the proper phrase”. I suggested that the missing phrase might be “…THE LOST SAUCER!” but he ignored me. Scott bursts in and tells him what the phrase should be, saving his rival’s bacon. AS MOVIES TRY TO TELL US OVER AND OVER AGAIN, RICH PEOPLE SUCK AND ONLY POOR PEOPLE HAVE THE LIFE FORCE.

Oh, hey, was that Brian Setzer?

So how do we follow up that slice of drive-in fare (from an era with practically no drive-ins)? Is there any topping that, in a very real way finishing off the evening, like a blow to the head on the killing floor? Why, how about another movie from the 80s I had been trying to shoehorn into a Crapfest forever: Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare.

220px-RocknrollnightmareAs some of you may be aware, the movie’s original title was The Edge of Hell, which it retains on the Synapse Films disc I was using. This allowed me to pull the “Oh no! I brought the wrong movie!” bit for a while, never mind we had spent the last five minutes grooving to the 5.1 menu song of “Talkin’ ‘Bout Rock”.

So we have a rock group, The Tritonz, setting up shop in a remote (except you kept seeing car headlights on a nearby highway in the numerous night shots) farmhouse, where a family were mysteriously and supernaturally murdered years before. But this is the perfect place to finish our album! We built a state of the art recording studio in the barn! (The state of the art was apparently pretty sad in 1987, especially in Canada.) The Tritonz’ journey to the farmhouse in their non-custom van is pretty much accomplished in real time, the sure mark of a movie that came up short on running time. Interminable love scenes (and slow motion during same) is another clue.

(Speaking of love scenes, here’s some “fun” movie lore: the requisite breasts for an R rating were supposed to be provided by the groupies in one scene. Said breasts are even referenced in the dialogue. Their agent, however, told them to refuse on the day of shooting, and the ladies in the Tritonz were called upon to take up the slack. As it were.)

rocknrollnightmare2_05504ad066b68a611fbd6ab293425aa2The leader of the group, John Triton, is, as aficionados of crap cinema know, played by real-life rocker Jon Mikl Thor, who also wrote, produced, and provided the music. I actually like the music – very little LOST SAUCER needed, it provided its own riffs – but the story is plodding and pretty cliche. The drummer is even named Stig, for God’s sake. In any case, the forces of darkness -represented by rubbery cyclops puppets and the occasional decent makeup effect – pick off the band one by one, leading to a closing act that I still refuse to say anything about. It must simply be witnessed, with as little preparation as possible.

Oh, well, this trailer pretty much blows it, anyway. Spoiler alert, and all that.

Another thing learned this evening: most 80s movie scores were written by rummaging through John Carpenter’s trash can.

The best part is I can now threaten Crapfest with the sequel to Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, Intercessor: Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. But you know what? That is below even me.

With this particular Crapfest, though, it felt like we had finally hit our stride again, after the long time off. Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing? Given the Crapfest experience, it is probably a bad thing. And that’s good.

Right?

Hey… was that Brian Setzer?

 

 

 

 

Criminals and Their Code

100As I peck this out, it’s July 1. In two days, I’ll clock in for the most grueling day on my Day Job, covering the City’s July 3 Independence Day parade. Thankfully, this has gotten a little easier over the years, as the move to a location at the Stafford Centre provides better access to a place to get out of the Texas heat (and worse, the murderous humidity hereabouts) than was formerly the case. We used to set up in a field opposite the school complex, where there was a tree or two you could rest under. That field is now a parking lot.

So what I’m saying is I should bang something out before I die of heatstroke on Friday.

Poster - Monsieur Verdoux_01Continuing on with Chaplin’s later career, I watched Monsieur Verdoux last week, and I was more struck by the general oddness of tone than the controversial subject matter. This is, of course, the movie based on the career of Henri Landru, a notorious “Bluebeard” guillotined for the murder of ten women and a boy in 1922. Chaplin, as the title character, is a bank clerk who loses his job during a recession, and turns to the much more lucrative trade of wooing elderly women, gaining control of their assets, and then killing them. Oh yes, this is subtitled “A Comedy of Murders”.

Verdoux rationalizes that this is all business, so he is not necessarily a murderer. He has a wife, dating back to his bank clerk days; she is confined to a wheelchair, and some of his ill-gotten loot goes toward caring for her and his son. The rest is invested in the stock market, and as this is set in France in the early 30s, you know that is not going to turn out well at all. Verdoux is an ardent vegetarian, and lectures his son about not being cruel to animals – in fact, like a Buddhist monk, at one point Verdoux gently picks up a caterpillar from a garden path so it won’t be stepped on. You reflect upon the fact that a scene in the later French horror movie, Eyes Without A Face, had a scene excised in America showing its main villain caring for a child in his clinic with great care and empathy; we like our villains in starkest black and white, but this is only one of the reasons Verdoux was a failure in its US release in 1947.

2013-10-20The movie’s episodic nature works for it; its length ultimately works against it. Martha Raye has an extended role as a brassy lottery winner whose amazing luck means that she is the one victim Verdoux never quite manages to kill (as the French critic Andre Bezin points out, this is the one murder we want to succeed). Marilyn Nash similarly has a recurring role as a vagrant girl Verdoux picks up to test a new poison upon, then changes his mind after finding out she, too, once had an invalid spouse. Nash turns up one last time, her fortunes reversed since she has taken up with a munitions manufacturer who is making out like a bandit in Europe’s ramping up to WWII. “That’s the business I should have gone into,” moans a sad, diminished Verdoux.

Therein lies another reason the movie failed for an America coming off the Other Great War: in his trial, Verdoux does not necessarily defend himself, but he points out that his sins pale in comparison to the wholesale slaughter taking place every day in the political arena. “Numbers sanctify,” he tells a reporter seeking a moral to his story.

Intro_largeThe ultimate reason for Verdoux‘ box office failure on these shores: Chaplin was not playing the tramp. He had theoretically left the character behind in The Great Dictator, but the Jewish Barber is, essentially the Tramp with an actual profession. A desperate ad campaign with the tagline “Chaplin Changes! Can YOU?” didn’t turn the tide. It was a tide that had been flowing against Chaplin, seemingly orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, who was suspicious of Chaplin’s political views. Trials accusing Chaplin of violating the Mann Act (dismissed after two weeks and months of breathless media coverage) and a paternity suit in 1945 had tarnished his image. Honestly, as announcement to the world that there would be no more Little Tramp movies, Monsieur Verdoux is sterling. As a middle finger to that world, it’s even better.

This trailer doesn’t help the cause much, starting with a silhouette of the Tramp – but watch how Verdoux counts money. It’s inhuman, and I wonder how long it took Chaplin to master it – it’s a trick that’s pulled (with comic exactitude) three times during the movie. Also note the interplay between Raye and Chaplin, two old vaudeville pros who know exactly how to play off each other.

c7cdd1c5_CriminalCode-1931-Columbia-oneBEver since I’d re-watched Targets, I’d had a hankering to see the other movie quoted in it besides The Terror: The Criminal Code. It’s a lovely scene in Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff)’s hotel room, when the drunken director (Peter Bogdanovich) spots The Criminal Code playing on the TV. “That’s The Criminal Code!” says Bogdanovich. “I know,” replies Karloff. “Howard Hawks directed this!” “I know.

It’s a climactic scene playing out on the TV: the typically gaunt, menacing, knife-wielding Karloff stalking a cowering prison inmate. Good enough to file the title away for later seeking.

Not so easy, these days. Not for a 1931 penitentiary flick, in black and white and actually starring a bunch of people the average joe on the street would identify as “Who?” (The average joe on the street is a moron) Semi-luckily for me, Turner Classic Movies put out a box set of three movies Karloff made on the cusp of his sudden fame for Frankenstein. Luckily because I wanted to see The Criminal Code. Semi because I also had to buy The Guilty Generation and Behind the Mask. Maybe I’ll watch those some day.

Anyway, Criminal Code paints a pretty wide canvas. A young kid (Philips Holmes) kills a man in an incident District Attorney Mark Brady (Walter Huston) points out could easily be dismissed on extenuating circumstances, but he is bound by the Criminal Code (thumps law book) to try the kid for manslaughter. The kid’s lawyer, used to financial cases, is overwhelmed and the kid gets put away for ten years.

huston-in-yardAfter six years of working in the jute mill, the kid is about to break, although his two cellmates (one of whom is Karloff, playing a hardcase named Galloway) are oldtimers trying to help him cope. Brady, having lost an election for Governor, becomes warden of the prison as a consolation prize, and actually sets out to improve things somewhat. The Kid is rescued from the jute mill and made a trustee – Brady’s chauffeur, no less, which puts him in a prime position to fall in love with Brady’s daughter (Constance Cummings) and vice versa. The Kid’s third cellmate is killed in an escape attempt, and the blame for that death falls on the snitch Runch (Clark Marshall), whom Galloway knifes during a riot – the scene excerpted in Targets. The Kid sees Galloway leave the scene, then refuses to tell Brady anything, adhering to the Criminal Code of the inmates (ha! See what they did there?), even though his parole is on Brady’s desk, ready to be signed.

the-criminal-codeIt’s melodrama, but pretty decent melodrama. Hawks keeps thing moving even though the plot threatens to turn back and start eating itself a couple of times. This is Karloff’s first really significant film role, and he got it mainly because it’s based on a play that was having a successful run in Los Angeles when MGM had a surprise hit with The Big House. Columbia, considered a second-rate studio at best, scrambled for something to ride on its coattails, and here was a script already written (Hawks had it re-written at least four times, though). Karloff had played Galloway in that production, and was carried over to the movie. Karloff said in later years if a more prestigious studio had produced the movie, the role would have gone to an actor with a bigger name. It’s a supporting role, but vital.

Should you also seek out Criminal Code? If you’re a Karloff or Hawks completist, sure. Otherwise, you’ll sleep just fine tonight without having watched it. Here’s that scene used in Targets, if that helps you sleep better:

 

Comin’ On Like A… MEGA POST!

100June 16, 2015

So if you watch TV at all, you might be aware that, as I write this, Tropical Storm Bill has made landfall somewhere south of me in Texas, an event that the local media has been trumpeting as if it were the vengeful return of Hurricane Ike, attended by flesh-eating zombies, who were themselves on fire. Grocery stores were emptied out, schools were closed, and I couldn’t go to work. Couldn’t even work on this blog, because my Verizon DSL craps out when it rains. Even the infinitesimal amount of precipitation I’ve gotten so far.

Well, this is what word processors are for, yes? Eventually my Internet has to come back. Eventually my teenage son has to stop barging into my office, demanding I reset “the router” “just in case that might help.” I’ve stopped correcting him that the router and the modem are separate creatures. I just grumble and do it.

In the course of all this madness, as I fall farther and farther behind in everything else, I might as well say, hey, I watched some movies.

THE-INNOCENTS-1961For instance, I watched The Innocents for the first time in, ooooh, maybe 50 years? I didn’t like it back then, but, you know, I was just a kid and all that. I bring entirely new sensibilities to the table. Surely now I will experience it as the classic it truly is!

Nope. I’m going to have to admit that most ghost stories simply do not do it for me, no matter how well made they are, and make no mistake – The Innocents is a well-made movie. Deborah Kerr, as a first-time governess who finds herself in a battle for her charges’ souls against the ghosts of two former servants, felt this was her best role. That’s quite possible. As a child I did not care for the downbeat ending. As an adult I appreciate that Kerr and director Jack Clayton leave the possibility open that this ghost business may all be in the governess’ troubled mind.

Or, if you're Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Or, if you’re Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Well, on then to stuff I appreciated more. Last week we lost a bunch of cool people, the biggest splash belonging to Sir Christopher Lee. I’ve said many times I found him to be an actor of limited range, but he had more presence and gravitas than ten normal actors, and when you put him in the right role, damn but he was unstoppable. One of those right roles was the Duc de Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out, Hammer’s movie version of the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name (the credits remind us it is a “classic novel”).

Richelieu, along with his two-fisted pal Rex (Leon Green) are determined to free the son of their deceased comrade, Simon (Patrick Mower) from the insidious control of Mocata (Charles Gray at his villainous best), a Satanist of incredible power. Fortunately for the good guys, de Richelieu is himself knowledgeable in the ways of magic, and is  able to protect his friends – if just barely – from the black magic onslaught that comes. The story meanders a bit, but there’s hypnotism, spirit mediums, giant spiders, the Angel of Death and Satan Himself (a guy with a goat’s head. It’s 1968, after all, and for that, it’s not bad).

There’s a fair amount of action and derring-do – I seem to remember the novel having a lot more, but then, I read it uhhhh forty-something years ago. A lot of movies about Satanism are pretty dull, but this is not one of them. It really needs a quality video release in the U.S., but I say that about most Hammer movies.

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-15h33m46s97

70s, you have so much to answer for.

Then I went to Rick’s for our monthly watching of movies. We had our three movies all picked out, and our pattern of late was two acknowledged classics and one lamentable piece of crap, usually sandwiched between the two classics as a palette cleanser. This time we decided to forego the “shit sandwich” model and start with the non-classic: in this case, the recently-revived Supersoul Brother, which goes by an *ahem* much vulgar title in actuality.

This is the star vehicle for Wildman Steve, a minor league Rudy Ray Moore (who was himself in Petey Wheatstraw as a character named Steve), who plays a wino -named Steve – picked by two thugs to be the guinea pig for a super-strength potion they’ve bankrolled to the tune of six thousand dollars (geddit? Geddit?). The plan is for Steve to carry out a safe from a jewelry store, then the hoods will plug him and make off with the diamonds. They figure this will be a mercy because, unknown to Steve, the formula will kill him in six days. Well, the formula also makes him bulletproof, so he makes off with the diamonds and tries to find an antidote.

supersoul6bigNow that is almost the plot to a decent movie. Unfortunately, this is a Wildman Steve movie, which means it’s a Dolemite movie without the budget, wit or charm.

I’m going let that statement sink in on you for a while. As Rick so very succinctly put it, “This movie makes you re-calibrate your opinion of the Dolemite movies.”

I managed one intentional laugh during the movie. There is also one point during which we said, “You know, this was an okay movie until these white women showed up,” so there are degrees of bad. Predictably, although a derelict wino, Steve has no problem getting women into bed. The mad scientist, Doctor Dippy (Peter Conrad) has a girlfriend played by the magically named Wild Savage, who seemingly took acting lessons from Dolores Fuller, but again, without the budget, wit or charm of an Ed Wood movie.

vlcsnap-2015-04-15-19h33m18s228This was directed by Miami filmmaker Rene Martinez, Jr., whose other big claim to fame is The Guy From Harlem, which, dammit, I own, so someday I have to watch it. At one point we spotted a triple-beam scale in Dr. Dippy’s office and Rick said, “That’s how they measured out the payroll every week.”

Vinegar Syndrome’s DVD is mainly clear and deceptively beautiful, but it has enough missing frames and streaking to really bring home the seedy grindhouse experience. I can’t recommend it, but I also cannot wait to force it on my friends.

Well, I see Everything is Terrible has edited it down to two minutes. Be aware this only gives you the smallest inkling of it’s… uh… quality:

So to soothe our bruised sensibilities, we slipped in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

The_Great_Dictator-335887708-largeChaplin’s first all-sound movie still has stretches of silent comedy (or scenes that would play as well silently), but suffers from some tonal problems. It’s the tale of a Jewish barber who spends years in a hospital, suffering amnesia from injuries in a World War I-style war between the countries of Tomania and Bacteria. Thus he misses the rise of dictator Adenoid Hynkel, his Double Cross party, and his anti-Jewish agenda. Both men are played by Chaplin.

Chaplin’s Hitler manque is justly famous – he spent hours watching footage of Hitler and knows exactly how to puncture the dictator, right down to his adjutants, rechristened Herring (Billy Gilbert) and Garbitsch (Henry Daniell). The Hynkel scenes are so exacting, so precise, that the parallel storyline with the barber seem scattered and happenstance – the Barber isn’t even given a name – until the two switch places, more by accident than anything.

Charlie-Chaplin-in-The-Gr-004It was, in fact, a matter of some curiosity to me that nobody notices the two men are identical. In retrospect, that is absolutely the right way to approach it; as one of the Juden, the Barber is considered by the stormtroopers to be subhuman, and therefore no notice is given to him as a person; it isn’t until the Barber escapes from a concentration camp and is found in a stolen uniform that it is assumed he is Hynkel, just as Der Fooey, taking a pre-invasion vacation in an Alpine costume, is mistaken for a common man.

This is all leading up to the Barber giving a speech when everyone assumes he is Hynkel, to celebrate his conquering of another fictional country; the speech is, instead, one advocating peace and brotherhood, and you have no doubt had it posted to your various timelines more than once, captioned as “The Greatest Speech Ever Made” (and here it is with some Hans Zimmer music, for  extra chills):

Please note that this speech is also one of the pieces of evidence given for branding Chaplin a Communist. Why? Because fuck the world, that’s why.

As I said, I don’t feel the two storylines mesh ideally, but who cares when the two resulting movies are this good? Chaplin was very nervous about his first talkie, so much so that the movie pretty much ruined his relationship with Paulette Goddard, radiant as always as the Barber’s girlfriend, Hannah. He needed not have worried so much, even if in later years he had misgivings about taking a relatively lighthearted approach when the true horrors of Nazi Germany began to come to light. But The Great Dictator had such value as a propaganda tool in the early days of World War II, it cannot be discarded as misguided. Hell, it’s even recorded that Hitler himself had a copy smuggled in so he could watch it. Apparently he did so twice.

mononcle-posterSo, excellent movie, even though I could not, in all conscience, give it the full five stars. Unlike the movie which ended our evening, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.

Several years back, when I decided that I wasn’t getting any younger and needed to start experiencing a higher quality of film, this is precisely the sort of movie I suspected I was missing out on. I don’t even know how to begin to talk about it, as the examination of even one of the many wonderful bits of imagery that run throughout the movie leads to the temptation to talk about all of them.

But let’s try. In the introduction to Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, one of the many plot threads concerned a young boy, whose businessman father was too occupied with important phone calls to pay attention to his son (much less enjoy his own vacation), who began to emulate Hulot. In Mon Oncle, Tati makes that connection a familial one.

Mononcle houseGerard (Alain Becourt) is the son of the Arpels; Mr. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) is the manager of a successful plastic hose company; Mrs. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) busies herself with caring for their ultra-modern and extremely ugly house. Hulot (Tati, as always) is Madame Arpel’s brother, living in a strange apartment building requiring an almost Escher-like path to get to his room, at the very top. Hulot lives in a older, rundown suburb that might as well be the rustic village in Jour de Fête; the heartbeat of life there is much slower and more erratic than in the contained and regimented world of the Arpels.

hqdefaultThus, Gerard looks forward to his outings with his uncle – they promise and provide more adventure and actual living than in his nightmare Tex Avery Home of the Future (at one point the Arpels quite literally become prisoners of their own technology). The Arpels, of course, keep trying to cram Hulot into the pegboard of their lives – Arpel gets him a job in the plastics factory (which goes about as well as you’d expect), while his sister attempts to set him up with their next-door neighbor, a bizarre scarecrow given to wearing Andean rugs as a cape.

Mon_Oncle_Hulot_Arpel-Large1Tati isn’t really against the modernity of the Arpel’s house, he’s more against the fact that it’s a house to be shown, not a house to be lived in – there is not a single comfortable chair in the joint, they are all plastic monstrosities that theoretically double as pieces of art. Even then, Tati is never truly vicious in his portrayal of the nouveau riche couple. Even when the father, tired of his son’s admiration for Hulot, packs him off to the provinces – a rather downbeat ending, in my estimation – Tati manages to wring a bit of sweetness from the proceedings, a reconciliation between father and son that shows the father may not have been totally despising his brother-in-law all this time.

Wow, we just hit 2000 words on this, but I managed to be kind of brief about Mon Oncle, so let’s try to get one more movie in here, continuing the comedy vein with Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.

smiles-of-a-summer-night-movie-poster-1955-1020235556This was the movie that made Bergman’s bones, make no mistake. He was terribly depressed, and his producer telling him if his next picture didn’t make some money, they wouldn’t be letting him make any more probably didn’t help. Then they entered Smiles into Cannes without telling him, it was a major hit, and suddenly they had to let him make his dream project, The Seventh Seal, which cemented the whole “genius” thing for him. Smiles also inspired Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, but that’s not as much fun as imagining he based Sweeney Todd on Bloodthirsty Butchers.

Smiles is one of those mannered comedies about relationships concerning six couples, most of whom are entangled with the wrong people, and the conniving actress who gathers them all at a country estate so that everybody can get with the right person. Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrad is Egermann, a middle-aged lawyer married to a 20 year old girl, who is still a virgin (also, his depressive adult son, the same age as the bride, is in love with her). The conniving actress is Egermann’s former mistress, who may have had his illegitimate son (which is a surprise to Egermann). She is currently the mistress of Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, a martinet who would allow his own wife to have affairs, if that just didn’t make him so jealous.

smileshaAnd just to add a little spice to the proceedings, there’s the child bride’s saucy maid, played by Harriet Andersson (who blew me away so completely in Through a Glass Darkly), who is herself looking for love. Bergman had apparently been having a love affair with Andersson prior to this movie, but it was over by this point – another reason for his profound depression during shooting.

It’s a complex plot, but Bergman keeps a bunch of balls in the air and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion. The main thrust of the story is that men are are a bunch of idiots and women can make them do anything they want, and I’d argue with that if I could. I was confused through the opening half of Smiles, because Egermann’s relation with his second wife – who he finally admits loves him more like a father than a mate – bears more than a slight resemblance to the life of Moliere, the French playwright who lends much inspiration to this script.

charlottefredrik360Moliere was similarly married to a much younger woman, even more unhappily than Egermann. Back when I was an actor, I played Moliere in a repertory project that alternated Mikail Bulgakov’s biographical The Cabal of Hypocrites with The Imaginary Invalid. In preparation, I read Bulgakov’s excellent biography of Moliere, along with the playwright’s works, and the most revelatory experience was reading The School for Wives, which is about… an older man married to a much younger woman. The final scene is basically a duel of romantic pronouncements between Moliere’s character and his wife’s younger lover. Contemporary reviews of the play mention Moliere’s hilarious puncturing of overwrought romantic plays and their actors in that scene, but knowing the man’s life, you are struck by how easily it could be played as bleakest tragedy, without changing a single word.

There’s quite a bit of that vibe in the opening act of Smiles of a Summer Night. By the third act, I was pretty certain it was a comedy, though, largely thanks to Andersson’s maid and her earthy major domo boyfriend, played by another repertory company member , Åke Fridell. And if nothing else, I liked it a whole lot more than the similarly-themed Rules of the Game.

It’s now June 22, and I have written 2725 words. Good God, I have work to do. Here, take this.

Oh Hai

I said in a post to the Letterboxd social site that my work duties lessen during the Summer. The Universe has proceeded to punish me for that statement.

A Writing Project that is currently keeping a roof over my head had entered its next phase, which I have been champing at the bit to start since about January – be careful what you wish for. 80,000 words due August 1.

The lessened workload I was bragging about has concentrated itself in this week and the next. We had a rain non-event last Tuesday that shut everything down, thanks to Tropical Storm Bill. Nervousness over the floods of Memorial Day, fed by local news media. You’d think these people had never been through a hurricane. Anyway, that means the day off (admittedly, I really needed the rest) jams everything that needs to be done in the remaining time.

Speaking of hubris (see opening statement), there’s that list of 100 movies I swore to watch this year. It is nearly July and as of this writing, I’ve only watched 35. There is something about having to watch them that kicks off my procrastination circuit something fierce. Then, like the Riddler, I have some sort of compulsion to actually write about the experience of watching them.

That post is getting longer and longer. Yes, I am still writing it. When I have the time.

One of these things is not like the others, One of these things just doesn't belong...

One of these things is not like the others, One of these things just doesn’t belong…

I direct you to the page about it – sometimes I just wrote a few paragraphs (if that) on Letterboxd instead of my usual lengthy blithering here. That page has links to those.

The first week in July my job will do its annual job of attempting to murder me as we cover the City’s Fourth of July parade, which is held on July 3. Don’t get me started.

I have a family which requires some attention. I cook. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who knows how to use the dishwasher. We go this Sunday to visit my Dad. All these things take time.

And oh yeah, the show every Friday and Saturday night, scooping out my life from 5:00 – Midnight. Prime movie-watching and writing time.

Well, this is the life I chose (and as the meme goes, also chose me), and I better get to living it.

Lengthy review-centered post, soon-ish. When I get the time.

mr-t-time-meme-generator-get-back-to-work-fool-fc0cc7

Through A Glass Darkly (1961)

100I’ve been told all my life how good Ingmar Bergman movies are. It’s practically a joke; no, it’s more than that, his movies were of such a quality that it was expected jokes about Bergman movies would be understood. I don’t think that, culturally, this is quite so true, anymore.

But that’s beside the point. I’ve just watched Through A Glass Darkly and I am blown away all over again.

b70-16549This is the first movie of a film trilogy which is apparently called, with admirable economy, The Ingmar Bergman Film Trilogy, consisting of this, Winter Light and The Silence. With my usual ass-backwards methodology, I watched Winter Light a year ago, because I was still in the honeymoon phase of my man-crush on Gunnar Björnstrand from The Seventh Seal, and I couldn’t resist the idea of watching him play a priest who had lost his faith. Was this an error? Have I sacrificed an arc that runs through this trilogy? I have no idea, I haven’t watched The Silence yet.

Through-a-Glass-Darkly-1961-movie-Ingmar-Bergman-2-450x315Speaking of admirable economy, Through A Glass Darkly eschews the larger population of most of Bergman’s other films, and rests its story on only four characters: David, a writer (Björnstrand), his adult daughter, Karin (Harriet Andersson) and teenage son, Minus (Lars Passgård), and Karin’s husband, Martin (Max von Sydow). All four are having a bit of a holiday in an old, isolated farmhouse on the coast.

From a very simple beginning, things begins to complexify: David is a very remote father, frequently traveling, ostensibly for his novels, and there is a fair amount of resentment that he’s about to set out again. Minus wishes only that he could speak with his father, but the few opportunities that present themselves fall into the typical, stilted, jokey conversations that any boy growing into manhood will find only too familiar. Martin is a medical doctor, which is a good thing because what will hang over the entire movie is Karin’s “illness”, often alluded to, never named.

through_a_glass_darkly_rgbKarin is schizophrenic. She has just returned from a lengthy stay in a hospital; she refers lightly to electro-shock therapy. While David and Martin are alone, Martin confides to her father that Karin’s situation is incurable; a cure is not totally unheard of, but the best he can hope for is longer stretches of normalcy between episodes. At the beginning of one such episode, Karin finds and reads her father’s diary. In the honesty writers practice with themselves, by themselves, David talks about her incurable state and his temptation – which he rightly feels is horrific – to write about her condition and deterioration.

The attempt to function as a normal family under this stress is heartbreaking. During a boat trip to get supplies, the two men have it out in civil discourse. Martin feels David has failed as a father, and David agrees – he also admits to a suicide attempt just prior to returning to his family, which failed only because the car he was driving seized up inches from a precipice. This incident has driven him back to Karin and Minus, his love for them now drawn in sharp relief, even if it is a love he has no idea how to demonstrate.

ThroughGlass01While they are gone, Karin has another episode, and in the lucidity that follows, reconciles with her father somewhat and decides that she should now return to the hospital forever, tired of pretending or even hoping that normalcy is a possibility. “You can’t live in two worlds. You have to choose one.” But the worst is yet to come, and every man in her family can only witness helplessly her madness.

It takes true master storytellers to relate a compelling story that consists largely of people talking in rooms, and Bergman certainly qualifies. Each of the men is excellent in their roles, but there is no doubt that this movie belongs to Harriet Andersson, with her stunning portrayal of Karin. She plays out the entirety of human emotion in her performance, and her schizophrenic episodes, never overplayed, have the terrible ring of truth. The fact that she not only holds her own against von Sydow and Björnstrand, but carries the whole picture with their able support, cannot be overstated.

tumblr_lb4idlm4Ab1qzzxybo1_500Additional praise must be given for cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in his second outing with Bergman. The black and white palette of Glass is incredibly varied, and the austere landscape and textures of the farmhouse and other settings are so precise, so gorgeously detailed, it is as if Ansel Adams had decided to take up a movie camera, it is that astonishing. I am told that Bergman was truly impressed by Nykvist’s outdoor photography on The Virgin Spring; I’m scheduled to watch that later in the year, I’ll let you know.

To hear me talk about it, one would think that Through A Glass Darkly is depressing – it’s not. It’s frequently harrowing, but as the movie ends – simply, with no Fin or end credits – the feeling is one of exhilaration. The exhilaration that comes of spending an hour and a half in a room with people who are very good at their jobs, and being privileged to see that work.

 

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.

 

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