July 18, 2017

Terror in a Texas Town

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Joseph H. Lewis - 1958
Arrow Academy BD Regions AB

I don't think there's anyway to discuss Terror in a Texas Town and avoid the connections with the Blacklist of the 1950s. The screenplay is by Dalton Trumbo, credited to Ben Perry, who previously wrote, without credit, the screenplay for Gun Crazy (1950), also directed by Lewis. Both films have Nedrick Young in the cast. Young, also blacklisted at the time, acted in several films for Lewis, and also wrote a few screenplays, ironically winning the Oscar, under a pseudonym, for The Defiant Ones, also in 1958. Star Sterling Hayden named names before the House of Un-American Activities, felt guilty about it, and literally sailed away from Hollywood for about six years.

What makes Terror in a Texas Town ironic in retrospect is that Hayden plays a sailor that has decided to settle in landlocked Prairie City, Texas after almost twenty years out at sea. Even if one chooses to ignore any of the political aspects of the film, the film offers the surface pleasure of a showdown between the gunfighter dressed total in black, and the hero armed with a harpoon. Should anyone think I'm giving away a plot twist, the film's posters advertise this gimmick, and even begin the film with part of the confrontation of sea-faring George Hansen and professional gun Johnny Crale. Portly Sebastian Cabot is hotel owner plotting to buy or snatch as much land as possible, although it is never explained how he's the only one to know about the oil underneath. There's also the town populated by familiar faces like Frank Ferguson, Hank Patterson and Sheb Wooley, again faces, though not always known by name.

The blu-ray is a quite nice, probably looking even better than it did when it played theatrically in 1958, most likely as part of a double feature in second run or small town theaters. What is a bit baffling is the introduction by film historian Peter Stansfield, who argues that Joseph Lewis should not be accorded credentials as an auteur because he is intuitive rather than someone who can explain all the reasons why he'll film a two-shot of two characters in an extended conversation while not looking at each other. It's almost as if Stansfield is undermining why this ten day wonder of a film is getting the special Arrow treatment. Better is the short supplement of Lewis' visual style, where Stansfield finds a moment to point out how Terror may influenced Sergio Leone. But again I want to slap Stansfield for mentioning that the character played Hayden shares the same name, George Hansen, as Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, wondering if the co-writer of the latter film, Terry Southern, had seen Terror, and yet failing to mention that when Sterling Hayden made a return to films, it was in Dr. Strangelove, a film with a screenplay by . . . Terry Southern.

Aside from dropping the ball where a coincidence (or is it?) is concerned, Stansfield complains that Lewis' overall career lacks the "coherence" of other directors honored with Edinburgh Film Festival retrospectives. As to Lewis being an intuitive filmmaker, my own take from those I've interviewed is that most classic Hollywood directors were intuitive and their careers were mostly assigned work. It's the film critic or historians job to identify the elements that make a filmmaker an auteur, and in the case of Joseph Lewis, it's a matter of taking a closer look at how Lewis handles the projects thrown his way.

To get a better understanding of Lewis' visual style, read the booklet notes by Glenn Kenny. Consistently informative and entertaining, with quotes from interviews as well as his own observations, Kenny does a much better job of explaining how Lewis likes to use long takes, with two or three characters within the same frame, each with their own agenda, unlike many contemporary filmmakers who would cut between the actors in conversation. Sure, having two or three actors within the same frame is a more economical way of working when you have a limited budget and short shooting schedule, but Kenny indicates that even with greater resources, Lewis would probably not film any differently. Lewis was known as "Wagon Wheel Joe", and that first wagon wheel shot comes in at 5:55, and we see similar shots of that wagon wheel jutting from the left of the screen nearing the climax. About fifty years ago, Andrew Sarris wrote of Lewis, "It would seem that his (Lewis) career warrants further investigation." Especially for those who have yet to discover My Name is Julia Ross, The Big Combo or Gun Crazy, this new blu-ray is a good place to start.

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July 16, 2017

Coffee Break

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Mario Adorf and Femi Benussi in The Italian Connection (Fernando Di Leo - 1972)

July 11, 2017

Japanese War Bride

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King Vidor - 1952
Nostalgia Family DVD

While I was a student at New York University, I also had the opportunity to be a student volunteer at the Film Study Center of the Museum of Modern Art. One of the perks was having free museum membership which allowed me to see films at the museum. In the Fall of 1972, there was a retrospective devoted to King Vidor. I didn't see everything, with school and other films occasionally taking priority. And then there was the word that one film that could have been included was specifically not be shown. I never found out his reasons, but Donald Richie made the request that Japanese War Bride not be part of what would have been the most complete retrospective of King Vidor's films. For those who might not be familiar with him, Richie is the one credited for his books that introduced Japanese film to English speaking cineastes. And credit is deserving, although it took me years to discover several worthy filmmakers that he chose either to disparage or completely ignore. As far as Japanese War Bride goes, it never appeared at any New York City revival house, nor appeared on any late night television broadcast. I finally shelled out a few dollars to get a somewhat passable DVD, a couple degrees better than what's often available for films that have fallen into public domain.

The title is misleading in that the film is about the Japanese wife of a an American soldier who was fighting in Korea. Tae and Jim meet in the hospital where Tae is a nurse, and Jim is recovering from his unspecified wounds. The two marry, and move to Salinas, California, where Jim's family has a farm. The drama comes from the varying degrees of acceptance of Tae to the family and the community, with Jim's sister-in-law the cause of much of the trouble.

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While Donald Richie would undoubtedly be more sensitive to how Japan and the Japanese would be presented, I still could not be certain what caused his objections. Jim is shown to have some cultural awareness by knowing to remove his shoes before entering the home of Tae's grandfather. The grandfather threatening to kill a couple of monkeys, claiming they are part of a religious ritual, deliberately plays on the assumed cultural ignorance of Jim and by extension, a western audience. Considering how badly Asians have been presented in Hollywood films, Japanese War Bride mostly works to demolish stereotypes. If anyone looks bad, it's the white people, especially the always foolish Woody, played by a character actor with the unfortunate name of George Wallace, and Fran, Jim's sister-in-law, played by eternal bad girl Marie Windsor.

In his book on Vidor, Raymond Durgnat explains that Vidor took up Japanese War Bride when another planned project, also with a rural setting fell through. Even setting aside the racial elements to the story, Japanese War Bride can be seen as comfortably fitting in with other Vidor films, beginning with Beyond the Forest (1949) and Lightning Strikes Twice (1951), and ending with Ruby Gentry (1952). All four films take place in rural or country settings, and revolve around women who act as a disrupting force within a small community.

I have no idea if Japanese War Bride even played in southern theaters. Laws barring interracial marriages were in place in some states prior to Loving vs. Virginia. The rules imposed by the Motion Picture Production code regarding miscegenation specified relations between black and white actors, although it was also the reasoning behind having white actors in yellow face. Don Taylor and Shirley Yamaguchi not only kiss twice, but are seen doing so very clearly in close up which probably caused a stir for some people at the time. On the other hand, the characters are very indirect when discussing World War II, the internment camps, and racial laws that were directed to Japanse-Americans.

Durgnat has described Japanese War Bride as impersonal compared to other films directed by Vidor. And this may not stand as one of King Vidor's better films, but I'm glad I saw it, if for one near perfect shot. Following a family argument for which she feels responsible, Tae takes a walk away from the farm to a relatively open field. Jim catches up with her. To the left of the screen is a single tree that is shaped like a giant bonsai tree. It's as if the all the ideas about different cultures were encapsulated in a single image.

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July 09, 2017

Coffee Break

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Ivo Garrani in Caliber 9 (Fernando Di Leo - 1972)

July 04, 2017

Shalako

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Edward Dmytryk - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Shalako is an odd western as is pointed out in the commentary by Alex Cox. Most famous for his film, Sid and Nancy, Cox has also written a book on Italian westerns, highly recommended, 10,000 Ways to Die. Shalako is definitely not an Italian western, but it was filmed in Almeria, Spain, the same location as many Italian and Spanish westerns, in this case standing in for New Mexico. The film was produced at the same time as Italian westerns were at their commercial zenith, and a handful of Hollywood filmmakers were looking at trying to infuse new life in the well-worn genre. While some of the violence is a bit more graphic, as Cox mentions several times, Shalako is not the film it could have been had it been filmed with a bit more imagination.

Based on a novel by Louis L'Amour, the inspiration is from the historically noted hunting parties taken by European royalty and celebrities, exploring the western frontier. A group of European royals and a former United States senator and his wife are led into Apache territory by their guide. Former Army colonel Shalako has run into them on the trail. As they have violated a treaty, the hunting party is advised to get out the next morning or risk an Indian attack. Not only is the hunting party attacked, but the guide and his men take food, ammunition and horses, abandoning this aristocratic bunch. Shalako returns to lead the group safely through the desert.

Sean Connery took a million dollar payday to play a cowboy hero. He reportedly showed up with a mustache which was ordered to be shaven, the producers having memories of the 1950 classic, The Gunfighter, not doing well commercially with the blame placed on Gregory Peck's choice to have facial hair as appropriate for the era. The largely European cast included Brigitte Bardot, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd and Honor Blackman. Boyd gets to sport a mustache, possibly to alert viewers that he's the film's villainous white man. Also on hand are John Ford regular Woody Strode, as an Apache warrior, and former Red Ryder star Donald Barry. Not only was Connery reunited with his Goldfinger costar, but another Bond alumni, Charles Gray, provided the voice for Jack Hawkins, unable to speak his own lines due to the removal of his larynx. Unfortunately for producer Euan Lloyd, this all-star cast was unable to bring in the expected box office gold. Lloyd did continue with two other adaptations of L'Amour novels, and had better box office success with another Bond star, Roger Moore, in The Wild Geese.

The film does start promisingly with a mountain lion trapped in a crevice, unable to climb to safety. Taunted by Stephen Boyd and his crew, we see the barrel of a rifle poking in from the left of the screen, shooting the mountain lion. The shooter is Brigitte Bardot, and with her, the hunting party, all seen wearing top hats. While the hunting party is united by class, there are tensions between the married couples, as well as Peter van Eyck's German aristo unsuccessfully pursuing Bardot's countess. The sense of class and entitlement is displayed by the treatment towards Stephen Boyd and his gang. There's no subtlety involved when everyone is reduced to the same level, and are led through the desert by a man whose real first name is Moses.

The blu-ray was derived from what appears to be a perfect print. This is a film that requires viewing on a big screen to follow some of the action, with the characters quite small, seen faintly in the distance. Some may enjoy Shalako on its own merits. Edward Dymytryk has expressed embarrassment over his work here, and it certainly lacks the visual panache of his black and white thrillers from the Forties and early Fifties. The treatment of the Indians tries to play it both ways, justifying their attacks on the hunting party due to Boyd's trespassing, but also letting the viewers know that the Apache's are hardly gentlemanly with white women. Alex Cox's commentary track is of interest, pointing out how one of the sets was also featured in a couple of other Italian westerns, his own experience in Almeria shooting Straight to Hell (1987), discussing the accuracy of the presentation of the Indians, and thoughts on how Shalako could have been a better film.

What remains unanswered is in a film that hinges on the characters' deprivation of food, water and bullets, how does Brigitte Bardot manage to maintain a seemingly endless supply of eye liner?

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July 02, 2017

Coffee Break

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Alexandra Lamy in Ricky (Francois Ozon - 2009)

June 27, 2017

Introduction to Japanese Horror Film

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Colette Balmain - 2008
Edinburgh University Press

Dr. Balmain's book is not a historical survey. It would be a blessing to have such a book, especially one that would, as thoroughly as possible, review Japanese films of the silent and pre-World War II era. Most of the films discussed are from the 1950s, ending with films released about a decade ago. What Dr. Balmain has attempted here is put the production of the Japanese horror film within the context of Japanese culture and history.

Jasper Sharp has written about several of the weaknesses in this book. What does interest me here is the discussion of how one should approach serious appreciation of film, and to what extent does one need to acknowledge any or all contexts of film production. Part of this question comes from the more recent Japanese horror films having been marketed under the "extreme" banner, with the emphasis strictly on visceral thrills. Also, the greater part of the audiences for the English language remakes, at least anecdotally, were not always aware that Gore Verbinski's version of The Ring, for example, was a remake. I've followed cinema and its history long enough to know that there is never a final word, only a series of jumping off points for the more serious student to investigate for themselves.

Taking a break from reading, I saw the recent Sadako vs. Kayako (Koji Shiraishi - 2016). For those unfamiliar, the two characters of the title are the vengeful female ghosts from the original Ring and Ju-on: The Grudge respectively. Balmain discusses Japanese girl culture to some extent as it exists in horror films. The two main protagonists are both young females, university students. Much of Balmain's writing is about the role of females in Japanese horror films. What is not discussed is whether the audience, particularly for some of the more recent films, would be young women as well. In addition to not examining the difference between those films designed for a niche audience, often via home video, and those film getting mainstream theatrical release, there is little acknowledgment of production practices where the filmmakers often appear restricted in their careers.

I bring up this point because with the emphasis on women in front of the camera, nothing is said about the few women filmmakers who have worked in horror films. There may well be others, but Shimako Sato, Mari Asato and Kei Fujiwara come to mind. Of these three women, only Sato is mentioned in relation to here Wizard of Darkness films. For those who choose to take on Introduction to Japanese Horror Film I would suggest to glean judiciously. Definitely see what you can from the filmography, and let the films speak for themselves.

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