Gangsters, Masks and Trogylodytes

I can say that I’m going to stop doing multiple movies in each post, and I will have to admit that I am lying. To accomplish this I would have to A) Write more often; or B) Watch fewer movies. Neither is likely. My berserk schedule does not allow that much flexibility, and February has turned into a month of burdensome obligations. But never mind that:

Once Upon A Time in America (1984)

once_upon_a_time_in_americaFor instance: I’m not sure how long the average post takes me to write; six to eight hours sounds about right, unless I’m talking about my favorite movie, and then it takes more like two weeks. Now consider that in the time it took to watch Once Upon a Time in America, I could have written two-thirds of this column. Of course, watching the movie is what this is all about, so that’s a specious comparison, but I am here to say that at four hours and eleven minutes, this is not a short movie.

Nor should long movies frighten us; in the right hands, they yield amazing dividends. The only slightly shorter Andrei Rublev is an incredible experience, but it also has the allure of the exotic going for it, being set in medieval Russia, whereas Once Upon a Time rests in somewhat more familiar territory, with the early 20th century providing a taste of antiquity, but only a taste. It’s the story of four Jewish kids growing up in New York and working their way into the Underworld, eventually becoming big time bootleggers during Prohibition. By that time the kids have grown up into Robert DeNiro, James Woods, William Forsythe and James Hayden. Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Larry Rapp and Darlanne Fluegel round out the core cast.

Once Upon a Time in America 10The movie starts with DeNiro’s character, Noodles, on the run for snitching on Woods’ character Max (and its consequent bloodbath), and finding that a million dollars he had stashed away is mysteriously missing. The movie is going to flash forward to 1968 and then back to the 1900s, throughout Noodles’ life as he attempts to put together exactly what happened, and taking the audience along with him. Somebody tracked him down in his new life and is leaving clues for him to pick up. If the biographical parts don’t interest you – and they will – the central mystery will certainly keep you hooked as the movie progresses.

There are a lot of people that are going to argue that Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is his crowning achievement, and I would have held out for Once Upon a Time in the West, but that was before I saw Once Upon a Time in America. It’s quite possible that anyone who lobbies actively for the first two had only seen the truncated theatrical cut, slashed down to two hours and twenty minutes – almost half its running time! – a cut that Treat Williams (playing an idealistic Union boss who turns to the dark side) claimed couldn’t possibly make any sense. The version I saw had footage spliced in that was obviously from the cutting room floor, lacking the shine and gloss of finished product, and at least one lengthy scene has such an essential plot point that I was amazed it was cut. A filmgoer who had paid attention up to that point could have filled in the details later… but I’m finding more and more that filmgoers that pay attention are rare animals.

abixwBht_zps96e04c74.png~originalLeone had reportedly been offered The Godfather and turned it down, to his regret. There is a lot of the epic flashback stuff in Godfather 2 that is an obvious influence here, but Leone’s recreations of early 20th century New York are breathtaking. This is a four hour movie that only felt like three hours. It’s the longest movie on this year’s List, and I glad it’s out of the way, but I’m also very, very glad I saw it.

Buy Once Upon a Time in America on Amazon

Little Caesar (1931)

220px-LittleCaesarPYeah, it was with a little sarcasm that I followed up with Little Caesar, going so much in the opposite direction that it was absurd. The movie gives us the rise and fall of a crime kingpin in a slim 80 minutes. It may go by faster, but it also seems much slighter, certainly far less dense.

Edward G. Robinson delivers a star-making performance as Rico, who starts out the movie sticking up a gas station, but deciding to head to the Big City because he’s made for bigger stuff, see? Going along with him is his partner, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who sees the City as his big chance to become a dancer. Rico signs onto a mob easy enough, even though the boss (Stanley Fields) is a little concerned about Rico’s willingness to use his gun.

105659-004-3271C8DCJoe does get a job as a dancer at a night club (it was a different time, I tells ya), and slowly removes himself from Rico’s sphere. Rico does stage a hold-up at the nightclub, and winds up shooting a local Commissioner. After that, his rise to the top of the Underworld begins, and it is as meteoric as his fall, precipitated when he tries to force Joe back into his gang, and Joe’s lover convinces him to turn state’s evidence against Rico. His loyalty to Rico is, shall we say, bruised when Rico tries to kill him, but can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.

Rico will end up hiding out in a flophouse, but is roused to action by the head cop who’s been dogging him all movie long starts insulting him in the papers, leading up to a shootout and those famous words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

vlcsnap-2016-01-31-01h13m17s081It all feels very 1931, if you catch my drift. Stilted and somewhat mannered, even given the subject matter. Sources are conflicted as to whether or not Rico is based on Al Capone or Salvatore “Sam” Cardinella, another violent Chicago mobster, but that doesn’t really matter. From this comes The Public Enemy, Scarface and any number of other gangster movies – but the real reason to watch is Edward G. Robinson. Robinson was a serious student of drama, and watching him act is always an unalloyed pleasure. He’s probably one of the finest character actors of the 20th century, and that he’s unrealized as such, and is instead relegated to the ranks of cartoon characters, ending every sentence with a “nyah!” is the true crime here.

Buy Little Caesar on Amazon

The Mask (1961)

CR3Ynk2VAAAzh77In the spirit of due diligence, I should reveal that I entered in a contest in December, sponsored by Classic Movie Hub and Kino-Lorber. I won the first week, and the prize was my choice of eight Kino-Lorber blu-ray titles. They were all tempting (and more than a few I have purchased in the meantime) but the only one I had never seen was The Mask, though it had haunted most of my adult life when it was the cover for RESearch magazine’s Incredibly Strange Films issue.

The Mask is notable for several reasons. First, a somewhat novel use of 3-D, especially considering that cinematic craze was over by 1955 and The Revenge of the Creature. It is also the second film by Julian Roffman, who almost single-handedly jump-started the Canadian feature film industry. It was felt that a horror movie like The Mask would be more successful commercially than his first effort, a crime film called The Bloody Brood, starring Peter Falk.

Psychiatrist Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) has a particularly distraught patient in Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), a young archaeologist who’s been having nightmares and blackouts. Radin feels it is somehow the fault of a strange South American ritual mask he discovered recently; he claims it is exerting an unholy, murderous power over him.

The Mask 2Barnes dismisses Radin’s fears, because unlike us, he did not watch the beginning of the movie where Radin pursued and strangled a young lady. Even more distraught, Radin leaves the office, mails the mask to Barnes, and blows his brains out.

So Barnes finds himself in possession of what his deceased patient claimed had taken over and ruined his life, and like any curious person in the same room with the Necronomicon, he just has to have a look. The ominous voice in the soundtrack intoning “Put the mask on… NOW!!!” probably wasn’t helping, either.

post-269895-0-10112400-1446578737This is the point at which theater-goers were supposed to put on their own mask, ie., the red/green glasses that made 3D work in those days. Barnes finds out that wearing the mask immediately results in a bad LSD trip, full of horrifying and bizarre imagery. He also feels himself compelled to wear the mask over and over, as he slowly succumbs to the same paranoia and murderous delusions as his patient.

Now the first thing one is going to ask (particularly if “one” is me) is – so how are the bad acid trip images? And the answer is pretty darn good, actually. Roffman had gone so far as to consult avant-garde artists in the design of these sequences (ironically, he abandoned their concepts as too unrealistic, especially on his budget) and employ groundbreaking electronic music. These parts are refreshingly forward-thinking. The images are strange and actually unnerving, aided immeasurably by the fact that Roffman uses his 3D very constructively, even when things aren’t flying out or reaching toward you from the screen. Objects in the foreground and the background provide nice parallax scrolling, for instance. The Kino-Lorber blu-ray, in association with the 3-D Film Archive, is sharp and flawless and produced for people with 3-D players and TVs, neither of which apply to me. The trip sequences are supplied in red/blue anaglyph as an extra, but, alas, not as a part of the 2-D presentation. The anaglyph presentation is really strong, as well – but you’ll need to provide your own glasses.


Sad as this is, it does force the poorer viewers among us (like me) to judge The Mask on its own merits. It has a reputation as being slow-moving, but hey, welcome to low-budget genre films in the 50s and 60s. Most people watching The Mask came to see the 3D sequences, and under those circumstances, anything not mask-related is doing to be greeted with impatience. Bereft of that gimmick, we can see The Mask as it really is: sightly clunky, repetitious and padded, but no less so than a lot of its contemporaries. And those mask sequences, appearing at roughly a half hour, 45 minutes, and then ten minutes before the end – are really something. I’m unsure of the disc authoring voodoo necessary to make such things happen, but I really wish they could have used the branching capabilities of the technology to make a 2-D/anaglyph viewing of the movie possible, just like in the theaters.

Buy The Mask on Amazon

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

BtomahawkThis was getting quite a bit of buzz at the end of the year, and the premise is pretty unique, so I knew I was going to have to watch it, even if just for the cast. And man, what a cast; I am going to single out casting director Matthew Maisto right here for some lavish praise.

Because right at the beginning, we meet two cut-throat western bandits (literally – the very first image of the movie is a man getting his throat cut) played by Sid Haig and David Arquette. And dammit, any movie that starts out with Sid Haig is okay in my book. Not that these guys are going to last long – while vamoosing because they hear horses approaching, they blunder through what is obviously an Indian burial ground of some sort, and before you know it, Sid is festooned with arrows.

BONE TOMAHAWKBut having had our nerves jangled, let’s go over to the little frontier town of Bright Hope several days later, where cattle boss Arthur (Patrick Wilson!) is recovering from a broken leg. His wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) is the backup for the local drunken doctor (luckily for Arthur) and she is called to the jail one night to tend a drifter who got into an altercation with Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell!), and got shot in the leg. That drifter is David Arquette, so we’re pretty sure something bad is in the offing.

The next morning a local stable boy is dead and disemboweled, the horses he was tending are missing, and so is the drifter, the Deputy, and Samantha. The local educated Indian, the Professor (Zahn McClarnon) identifies the unique bone-tipped arrow left behind as belonging to “The Trogylodytes”, a tribe the other tribes leave strictly alone because they don’t want to die. He points the way to a series of canyons where the Trogs make their home, and a sadly small party of Hunt, Arthur, a dandified Indian fighter named Brooder (Matthew Fox!) and the “backup deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins!) set out to rescue their townsfolk.

bone_7This core ensemble works so incredibly well together that I yearned for more adventures with them. Matthew Fox’s appropriately-named Brooder is a fun departure for him, but the real revelation is Richard Jenkins as Bone Tomahawk‘s Walter Brennan character. Unrecognizable in the role, Jenkins very easily steals the show from the other three, and that is no small accomplishment. It wasn’t until almost halfway through the movie I realized who he was!

bonetomaPatrick Wilson’s Arthur has been given an interesting obstacle for his character to overcome: that broken leg. No devil from hell is going to stop him from rescuing his wife, but the constant re-injuring and threat of gangrene puts a particular edge to his struggle.

Oh, and the Trogylodytes, it turns out, are cannibals, so in the last half-hour it turns into an Ruggero Deodato movie. There’s a reason I can’t expect to see more movies with those four characters.

(To return to the cast once more, I should mention that among the citizens of Bright Hope can be seen – briefly – James Tolkan, Sean Young and Michael Parê. Good work, Mr. Maisto!)

bone-tomahawkThis is S. Craig Zahler’s first movie as a director (and his second as screenwriter) and it does nothing but make you hungry for the next one. The dialogue is so damned good, the characters so well-delineated, that the movie was a genuine pleasure to discover.

Also, if the Universe could continue to cough up two new westerns a year starring Kurt Russell (and maybe Sid Haig, too), I would be very appreciative.

Buy Bone Tomahawk on Amazon

Zéro de conduite (1933)

Zero_de_conduiteSo why not finish up with another story of savages? Or more appropriately, I started with the longest movie on the list, I might as well finish up with the shortest, at only 44 minutes.

Zero for Conduct is about four boys in a repressive boarding school, their lives little better than that of prisoners, who cook up an act of rebellion during the school’s annual celebration of its very existence. This is Jean Vigo’s third film – he only made four – and it was thought so scandalous and subversive that the French censor banned it until 1947. Vigo himself was quite the anarchist, and it shows in his movies to this point, a mixture of irreverence and surrealism. The new schoolteacher, Hugeut (Jean Dasté), little more than a boy himself, draws a caricature of a fellow teacher that animates itself; the dominating headmaster is a bearded midget (Delphin), and in the annual celebration, the grandstand full of dignitaries is quite obviously a bunch of literal dummies.

Zero_de_conduiteZero is tagged as influential, with many descendants like The 400 Blows quoting it. There is at least one sequence of thrilling, otherworldly beauty; possibly the first “shit” ever uttered in a French film (twice), and, sadly, the feeling that this might be a longer project trimmed down due to time and money. In any case, certainly worth a watch, definitely since I’ll soon be watching Vigo’s final film, L’Atalante.

Buy The Complete Jean Vigo on Amazon


  1. I’m at least partially convinced that Kurt Russell is in BONE TOMAHAWK because he likes being in Westerns and already had the facial hair from THE HATEFUL EIGHT grown out, so why waste a perfectly good awesome ‘stache?

    • It’s more research than I care to do right now but I wonder when the two movies were shot? Russell’s whiskers (which are frickin’ awesome) were longer in EIGHT.

      Apparently everybody in the cast and crew of TOMAHAWK were jazzed to be making a Western. Maybe we’re seeing a rebirth.

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