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.


Going Dark for the Holidays

Today is the last day of the Thanksgiving Holiday, the second weekend in a row I’ve had off. I have done nothing except cook. eat, sleep and play stupid puzzle games. It has been remarkably renewing. The opposite of profitable, but renewing. Which brings me to this entry.

December begins tomorrow. That is usually a busy month for me; hopefully the last two weeks are not an indicator of how busy I’ll be this year. I need to wrap up phase one of a writing project by the end of the month, and there is a personal writing project I’ve been putting off far too long.

So what I’m saying is, I’m going to stop pretending and simply announce that, likely, this space is going dark for the rest of the year. This downtime has been nice, but I need more. I haven’t watched a movie in more than a week, because – and I find this hilarious – if I watched any more, I’d have to write about them, and this entry was getting ungainly long already. That’s the epitome of putting the cart before the horse. So, before I close this tab on my browser, here’s a shorter version of that ever-growing blog post:

ghost-catchers-1Ghost Catchers (1944) is Olsen and Johnson’s third movie for Universal, the first being Hellzapoppin’, which I raved about last time. Fortunately, it’s up on Vimeo in its entirety, as is their second movie, Crazy House.

Studio execs had ground them way down by this time (it is probably telling that their last picture is titled See My Lawyer, and reportedly has very little Olsen and Johnson in it), to the point that once more we have two movies occupying the same space, but there isn’t even the uneasy truce between them that made Hellzapoppin’ great. Olsen and Johnson find themselves in an Abbott & Costello knockoff (typically, they make a meta joke about it), and the best sequence involves a jitterbug exorcism to cast out the one actual ghost in the whole thing. Mel Torme is supposedly in that, and so is Morton Downey Sr., providing far more entertainment value in five minutes than his son did in an entire career. Chic Johnson seems to be on nitrous, so constant is his giggling. I should have watched Hellzapoppin’ again.

downloadI went over to Rick’s to watch more movies; now, normally, Rick and I, during these outings, watch a better quality of film. During the last sojourn at Dave’s, however, when I showed Wheeler and Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs, Rick became a hardcore convert to the cause of W&W. We had been interested in So This Is Africa, their sole movie for Columbia (during a contract dispute with RKO), and reportedly one of their most heavily censored. Alas, my suspicions were correct, as not only does this movie suffer from the lack of Joe Mankiewicz’s lunatic scripting, but the print is pretty heavily and obviously cut, so much so that Rick and I took to marking each instant with scissor motions in the hour while hissing, “Filth!”

The best bit is an out-of-left-field riff on Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, which would have been brilliant had the Marx Brothers not done it three years before in Animal Crackers.

CTA1113_originalWe next watched what is the best thing I’ve seen all week, which is the recent Criterion blu-ray of A Hard Day’s Night. The image is a crisp, clean black-and-white and the sound features a lovely 5.1 remix that serves the songs well. The movie stands as a milestone for any number of reasons, but mainly as a testament to letting creative types have their head, and how important is good timing. The Beatles occupied one of those rare intersections where talent and desire were in the right place at the right time, and it was amazing that Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen could break the precedent of other rock musicals to actually allow their stars to show their differing personalities, to be themselves by playing larger versions of themselves.

I hadn’t seen this movie since 1975, when a local theater ran a midnight movie marathon of this, Help!, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. Some of the ladies in the college crowd were game enough to scream during the appropriate parts. But what I had forgotten was how claustrophobic this picture was, that it showed how trapped the Beatles were inside their own success. There’s always a smile or a joke, sure, but their faces do not truly light up until they’re playing their music.

Hard2For some reason I truly appreciate that in the final concert segment of the movie, you are able to see that the Beatles are sweating under the stage lights. People tend to forget how much actual work is involved in performing, and it is good to see that paid tribute.

It took me two more nights to get through all the supplements. That’s a great disc, is what I’m saying.

I1Ww9Rick is a recent convert to the cult of Oliver Reed; he arrived there by watching Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, followed by my insistence that he watch Richard Lester’s (there he is again) Three Musketeers, where Reed rather steals the show as Athos. So I brought my old disc of The Assassination Bureau (1969) (Warner Archive recently re-issued it).

This movie is what we used to call a “romp”. In pre-World War I England, a young suffragette journalist (played by Diana Rigg) discovers the existence of the title organization, run by the son of its founder, Ivan Dragamiloff (Oliver Reed). She contracts the Bureau to kill Dragamiloff himself, which the young idealist accepts – he feels the organization has grown too complacent and greedy, accepting hits for their monetary value, not the moral killing of deserving targets his father had insisted upon. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse chase throughout Europe, with Rigg unknowingly reporting to the Vice Chairman of the Bureau (Telly Savalas), who wants that World War, because all his money is tied up in munitions factories.

Oliver Reed & Diana RiggThis is light (despite the subject matter), frequently silly comedy-adventure, with a final fight scene aboard a zeppelin loaded down with a prototype blockbuster bomb bearing down on a castle housing a peace conference between all the crowned heads of Europe and Russia. I wanted Rick to see it because I think it proves that Reed could have been a credible James Bond… were it not for, you know, all the drinking and punching people.

For our follow-up, we’ll be watching The Devils, as soon as I figure how to play my Region 2 DVD on his system (really, Warner Brothers, what the hell).

I should close by mentioning that Rick, in retribution for my constant bad-mouthing of and cock-blocking a re-showing of Evilspeak at Crapfest, had re-named his wi-fi router so this was showing on my phone and iPad:

ClintBut this scheme, twisted genius that it is, has backfired upon him, as my phone now displays this comforting message:

No Clint

Nyeah, nyeah.

If I don’t have a chance to see you before then, have a Merry Christmas, or whatever your inclination is this time of year. Be safe, and watch good movies. It won’t kill ya.


The Devils (1971)

It seems like most of my life… well, from 1971 on, anyway… I had heard a lot about Ken Russell’s The Devils, and yet I had heard very little about it. The major impression I got – probably due to my father’s Playboy magazines – was “Lotsa naked nuns!” (with an understood undercurrent of “Hurr hurr!“) I knew it was based on historic fact, and largely on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudon. Past that, I didn’t know very much, because it was almost impossible to see, hidden away by Warner Brothers as something to be ashamed of, or – more to the point – to be feared.

There were a couple of VHS releases over the years, of a reportedly heavily cut “R” version. An occasional festival showing was grudgingly agreed to. Finally, this year, the British Film Institute released a DVD of the “X” Certificate version which originally ran in England (to great controversy) in ’71. Still not a bona fide Director’s Cut – which we may never see – but probably the best we can hope for. Warners denied the BFI permission to press a Blu-Ray, even.

So finally, now, thanks to my region-free DVD player, I can watch this movie. And I found out how “lotsa naked nuns” can be reconciled with “genuine masterpiece”, because holy cow you guys is this movie ever good.

Oliver Reed plays Urban Grandier, a Catholic priest in the fortified French city of Loudon, circa 1634. Loudon is an anomaly in that time period, a place where Catholics and Protestants live and work together in peace. After the death of Loudon’s governor, a workforce arrives to tear down the city walls by order of Cardinal Richelieu, as self-governing, self-contained cities stand in the way of his consolidation of power over Southern France. Also standing in his way is Grandier, who has papers naming him the city’s governor. Lacking a royal decree to tear down the walls, the force must retreat, much to the ire of the Cardinal.

Grandier has been planting the seeds of his own defeat for years, however; he is not a very devout clergyman, and has, in fact, gotten the daughter of a local wealthy merchant pregnant, among other things. Concurrent with his assumption of the role of governor and protector, though, he finds and returns the love of a good woman, even marrying her illegally in a midnight ceremony. In Grandier’s own words, he finds “the Grace of God in a woman,” and this, while working to protect the city he loves, leads him to a higher plane of spirituality… although perhaps too late for him.

For in Loudon’s Ursuline nunnery is Sister Jeanne, a hunchbacked Mother Superior who, like many women in the city, is madly in love from a distance with Grandier, and becomes obsessed with strange, blasphemous sexual fantasies about him.  Once she finds out about the secret marriage – a very poorly kept secret – her frustration decays instantly into bitterness, and she makes accusations that Grandier is a sorcerer, an incubus who visits the nunnery at night and has his way with the nuns.

At first, these accusations are seen as exactly what they are, the fantasies of a frustrated, hysterical nun, but Jeanne makes her accusations more elaborate and bizarre, goaded on by the nobleman charged with bringing Loudon down and the Church’s own Witchfinder General. The other nuns, threatened with execution, basically turn state’s evidence and take part in what becomes a sensational freak show, attended by the bourgeosie and noblemen; three exorcisms a day, with the nuns giving it their all like an improv troupe from Hell. This is where you fulfill all your naked nun picture needs for Playboy and the like.

Grandier returns from a trip to the Palais Royale to secure the future of Loudon only to find the deck stacked against him. Arrested, tortured and condemned to burn at the stake, Grandier exhorts the assembled crowd – which has turned against him as only mobs can – to fight for their city. As he breathes his last, explosive charges bring down the walls of Loudon, completing Richelieu’s victory.

I knew that Ken Russell had described The Devils as “my only political film”, but I was unprepared for just how political it was; the movie is a nightmare about religion turned into a political tool, and I can think of few things more absolutely relevant to the world today than that central concern. Warner can hide behind the supposition that blasphemy is the reason for their reluctance to make The Devils more generally available, but it’s the politics that truly make this a dangerous movie. In a country where people refuse to see Hugo because Scorcese also made The Last Temptation of Christ twenty-five years ago, there would be theaters set afire for showing this movie.

But even the blasphemy charge becomes shaky when one makes the slightest attempt to do any research (which the beautiful 2 disc DVD from the BFI supports). The most infamous scene, which has come to be known as “The Rape of Christ”, which was excised before the movie even premiered, is defended by no less than the theologian Rev. Gene Phillips, SJ, for years a consultant to the Catholic League of Decency, who regards the movie as a depiction of blasphemy, and not actual blasphemy.

The excised scene occurs after one of my favorite scenes, where a nobleman (actually the King in disguise) is brought in to one of the exorcisms on a palanquin; after watching, amused, for several minutes, he offers the Witchfinder a small ornate box from the personal collection of the King, containing a phial of the Blood of Christ. The Witchfinder thrusts it at the assembled mass of naked, cavorting women, and they all fall, writhing, then proclaim themselves gratefully cured. The masked nobleman then opens the box, revealing that it is empty. “What trick have you played on us?” cries the Witchfinder. “What trick have you played on us?” asks the nobleman. He then turns to the nearest naked nun and says cheerfully, “Have fun!” before being carried away on his golden litter.

After this comes the censored segment, where the women go completely over the top, pulling down a lifesized crucifix and ravishing the icon of Christ. This is unquestionably the climax of Russell’s exorcism setpieces, and … this is very important… is intercut with scenes of Grandier on the road back to Loudon, stopping to have a simple Communion in some particularly breath-taking scenery, simply feeling the presence of God in his surroundings and his simple tools of faith. The contrast between the increasing purity of Grandier’s personal faith and the utter corruption of religion taking place in Loudon Is what Rev. Phillips appreciates and endorses, and if an ordained Catholic priest can see past the naked nuns and ballyhoo to perceive what the director is after, the rest of the bloody world has no excuse.

But you’re not going to see that scene, except in snippets in the extras of the BFI disc. The actual footage was thought destroyed until only recently, and timorous Powers That Be still do not wish it to be on display. For many years there was a very real effort to make the R-rated cut of The Devils the only cut.

The removal of that footage does little to reduce the impact of the movie, though Russell doubtless thought it had been hopelessly gutted. His point is still made in spades to anyone not going “Hurr hurr, nekkid nuns”. The movie is a symphony of intensity, and as Grandier is spared no pain after his arrest, neither are we, as he is subjected to torture to find his Witch’s Spot (a bit of tongue mutilation that the makers of Mark of the Devil must have seen and thought, “Ooh, we need to make a movie about that!“), a mock trial, shaving of his head and beard to humiliate him, then even more torture to wring the confession of witchcraft from him (not too explicit thankfully, but no less harrowing) and his subsequent burning at the stake.

The power flows from Russell’s first-rate, committed cast; Oliver Reed in possibly his best performance, Vanessa Redgrave walking a very delicate emotional tightrope as Sister Jeanne, obviously intelligent but trapped in a world and a body she despises. Marvelous supporting work from Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin (who carved out a niche as the world’s finest portrayer of pinch-faced, cadaverously thin clergymen, see also Barry Lyndon), and Gemma Jones as the woman who turns Grandier’s life around, but alas, too late.

In case I’ve not made it clear: The Devils  is a stunning movie with incredible production design (a young Derek Jarman!), marvelous acting, and a message as sadly eternal as it is necessary to be eternally said.

You might say I liked it. And it is a damned shame I had to jump through so many hoops – import DVD, special equipment – to simply watch such an important piece of – not even merely political- but cinema history.