I know it may not seem like it, but I actually did watch some movies in the last month which did not feature a blind guy with a cane sword. Allow me to demonstrate:
It took me far too long to get around to the talkie version of The Unholy Three (1930). Jack Conway directs the sound version of the Tod Browning silent thriller from 1925 featuring three denizens from a circus sideshow, on the run from the law, who embellish their life of crime with secret identities. Echo the ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) masquerades as a sweet old woman who runs a pet store. Hercules the strong man (Ivan Linow) is her “son-in-law”, and a psychotic midget (Harry Earles, later much more sympathetic in Freaks) his infant son. The pickpocket Rosie (Lila Lee) is along for the ride as Echo’s granddaughter, but she’s falling for the pet store’s clerk, the square Hector (Elliott Nugent).
Their scam is pretty elaborate: Rich people come in to buy talking birds from Granny, but it’s Echo’s skills that give them voice (in the silent, this was cleverly presented with onscreen word balloons!). when the birds turn mute in their new homes, Granny pays a visit to examine them, with Earles along in a baby carriage. Left alone, the fake baby can case the joint for later burglary.
Things go south when Earles and Hercules rob a place on their own (while Echo as Granny tries to bust up the Rosie/Hector romance) and the two bunglers wind up murdering their victim. They quickly frame Hector for the crime, then take it on the lam to a remote cabin while Hector faces the music. This doesn’t go over too well with Rosie, though, who convinces Echo to go to the trial as Granny to clear Hector, leaving Earles and Hercules on their own to plot against the absent Echo.
There are at least two crackerjack sequences of extreme suspense in this version worthy of Hitchcock. The major emotion you’re left with, though, is an understandable yearning to see Lon Chaney’s Dracula. This is his only talkie, and he gets to show off every conceivable emotion; being alternately menacing and comical, even sympathetic at the end. It’s a good swan song, but serves to prove exactly what we lost with his untimely death, at a mere 47 years of age. Man, fuck cancer.
Just before the Christmas holidays, a direct download of Josh Johnson’s VHS documentary Rewind This! was made available for like 8 bucks, so I went hey, sure, and made with the Paypalling. Johnson casts a broad net, starting with collectors, then flashing back to the origins of the format, the format wars with Betamax, the rise of video stores, the role of pornography and the medium’s eventual downfall. But it always returns to collectors, who are the only reason, really, that we are even talking about VHS anymore. There are a few areas where I wish he had spent a bit more time, and some where I think he spent too much time (the section on video auteur Dave “The Rock” Stevens seems to go on indefinitely – but then, I also have to admit that he is the most animated of the interviewees). On the other hand, finding out that Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson is truly One Of Us is gratifying, and the guy with a Screams of a Winter Night poster on his wall made me smile. Warm nostalgia just flows over the whole endeavor. Well worth a watch.
I wish I could give as unhesitating a recommendation to Solomon Kane, based on the character of the same name created by Robert E. Howard, whom most of you will recognize as Conan the Barbarian’s daddy. Kane is usually described as “a dour Puritan” by Howard, and is a sword slinger literally worlds away from the Cimmerian. What Michael J. Barrett has done here is provide an origin story for the character that Howard never bothered to provide. It’s exciting enough, it’s undeniably well-made, but it’s also about a half-hour too long, and emotionally unengaging. James Purefoy as Kane requires some warming up to, but sadly, never quite manages that warming. It’s always good to see Pete Postelthwaite and Alice Krige, even if they are written out of the story pretty swiftly. And oh, look, it’s Max von Sydow, for whom ditto. Still, it’s good enough to hazard a glance if you’re interested. I didn’t hate it.
Worthy of far more than a mere glance is Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). I admit I cheated on this one – I really should have started with the earlier, silent Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922), but I picked the movie pretty late, and The Gambler is close to four hours long, and Testament is a mere two hours. Lang wasn’t interested in making short movies. In fact, the Criterion DVD has an interesting supplement tracing the differences between the original German version, and the French and eventual dubbed American versions, what was cut out and the likely reasons for same.
Testament has a marvelous opening as a man skulks around the supply room of a counterfeiting operation so massive the printing presses shake the walls. This guy will attempt to alert Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) of the operation, but the stress of constant attempts on his life drive him mad. Equally mad is our old pal Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has been catatonic for years since the events of The Gambler, but has recently taken to silently, sedulously scribbling in notebook after notebook intricately plotted plans for an Empire of Crime based on terroristic acts.
Some shadowy somebody is using these notes to carry out Mabuse’s plans utilizing a highly organized network of criminal cells. A member of the counterfeiting cell, Kent (Gustav Diessl) balks at the shadowy figure’s insistence on murder, and along with His love Lilli (Wera Liessem), he finds himself in a deathtrap with a hidden timebomb when he tries to go to the police. The ultimate identity of the faux Mabuse is never in doubt, but at least half the fun is in watching the characters get there.
The best thing for a film fan is the realization that the grouchy Inspector Lohmann is a carryover from Lang’s earlier M (1931), which means that M and the Mabuse movies happen in the same universe. Lang’s rich portrayal of the various denizens of Mabuse’s underworld bears this out. Someone on the IMDb pointed out that any director would be proud to point to Testament as their crowning achievement, but for Lang, it was basically Tuesday night. It was also his last movie in his native Germany, as the Nazi party was coming to power, and apparently saw things in Mabuse’s Empire of Crime that looked too familiar…
Next up was Jamaa Fanaka’s final movie, Street Wars, which proved to be a very entertaining puzzle. I watched it for the Daily Grindhouse podcast, which should be dropping at about the same time I finish this column up, so go to that link and be stunned by my inarticulateness.
I had put off seeing Street Wars for ten years or so… long story… so the best way to follow it up was to watch another movie with an insane title that I had been putting off (but only for a year), and there it was on Netflix: Kill ‘Em All.
Basically, there are eight assassins (though only four are deemed vital enough to give Bond-style introductory vignettes), who are drugged and abducted by a Cabal of Assassins and placed in a locked room deemed The Killing Chamber. There, they are supposed to take each other on in a series of one-on-one fights to the death, until only one remains standing.
If you are thinking, “That sounds like a rickety device to make a movie that is simply fight after fight,” congratulations, you too have seen way too many of these movies. If you like martial arts fights, though, this movie is pure catnip, and it is smart enough to stage an escape from the Killing Chamber midway through so our remaining assassins can get some payback. The one unfortunate note is when our filmmakers cannot resist making one character say, “This sounds like a video game,” because that is basically what Kill ‘Em All is: the best video game movie ever made that was never a video game.
It also gives us a pre-stroke Gordon Liu as the head of the Cabal, still able to kick a generous quantity of ass at 58 years of age. Kill ‘Em All is definitely not for all markets, but chances are you already knew that, and you already knew if you were interested or not the moment you saw the title.
It was with little or no conscious irony that I followed that up with the acclaimed 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. After a military coup in Indonesia in 1965, there was a genocidal spree of around a million executions of “Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals”. The death squads were recruited from the ranks of criminals and paramilitary outfits; the difference here, from other countries where such atrocities have taken place, is that these people were never even accused of war crimes – they are successful and even revered today.
Director Josh Oppenheimer focuses largely on one of these men – Anwar Congo, the most prolific executioner of his city, with somewhere around a thousand deaths to his personal credit, and several of his former associates. They were “Movie ticket gangsters”, selling cinema tickets on the black market, before their promotion to masters of life and death.
At first The Act of Killing seems to be a treatise on the banality of evil, with Congo nonchalantly describing how he developed a speedy way to kill his charges with a wire noose. Chilling, but I’ve seen several such documentaries over the last few years. Oppenheimer realizes this, and instead gives these former movie ticket gangsters – twisted film fans, who saw themselves as the characters of American gangster movies – carte blanche to make their own movie versions of their careers, in whatever genre they please. And they leap at the chance.
The bizarre nature of their choices builds fascination for the film’s second act. There is the expected film noir interrogation scenes (with some stunningly unexpected method acting from a victim), but there are truly bizarre scenes of gory horror and even surreal musical numbers.
It is during the restaging of one brutal massacre and burning of a village that we begin to see the awakenings of conscience in the formerly unrepentant Congo: “I didn’t realize it would look so horrible.” This carries through to one of the interrogation and execution scenes with Congo playing the victim, and finding that “I can’t do this a second time.” Watching the final, edited version of that scene, he finally breaks down in tears.
The emotional devastation in The Act of Killing thus comes from an entirely unexpected direction, from a man who spends most of the movie informing people that the name “gangster” means “free man”, and who feels his greatest achievement is a musical number where a man removes a wire noose from his neck and then hangs a medal on Congo, saying, “Thank you for executing me and sending me to heaven.”
The Act of Killing is already been hailed as an important movie. I realize not everyone is going to seek it out, but honestly, they should. There is a great deal of honesty here, and a major lesson in how history is, indeed, written by the winners, even if the winners are in drag.