May 14, 2019

My First Cinematheque

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Has anyone written anything serious about watching old movies on network television? The recent passing of actress Peggy Lipton included mentions of her love of older films, with The Razor's Edge (1946) and Tales of Manhattan (1942) cited. I'm five years younger than Lipton. And thinking about Lipton, myself, and others around my age, the aging baby boomers, I'm thinking that those of us who have also been identified as part of the "movie generation" were so thanks to network television.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, before tapering away around the mid 1970s, old movies were on network television all the time. Most major cities had the three national networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and one or maybe even two local networks. The studios sold their movies in syndication packages and it was easy to fill time, especially later at night. Television at that time often mean prime time viewing, followed by a half hour newscast, which in turn was followed by one or two movies - more on weekend nights. It didn't matter that the films were interrupted by commercials, were sometimes edited for length, or that we were watching a color film in black and white and/or a wide screen film reformatted for the square screen. This may not have been the way the filmmakers intended their films to be seen, but this was the way many cinephiles around my age discovered cinema.

Well before people were bandying terms like "buzz worthy", there was the word of mouth of several five and six year olds excitedly talking about something called King Kong that was to be on TV. This was around 1957, when my parents surrendered and our family had our first television set. I had no idea what King Kong was, but I knew I had to see it. And see King Kong I did, missing part of the beginning but entranced by what was on the screen. My concept of time was such that it didn't register with me that I was watching something produced over twenty years ago. At the end of the film, I asked my mother how they trained that giant gorilla to climb that tall building. I was introduced to the concept of "special effects".

Unlike some families, mine never went together to see a movie theatrically. It was through television that my father introduced me to a couple of favorite films, High Noon and A Night at the Opera.

In my early teen years, living in a suburb of Chicago, I took advantage of my parents being away by watching TV all night one Saturday night. I saw my first Busby Berkeley musical at around three in the morning. Studying the television schedule, I realized that this particular channel was showing movies made in the 1930s, all from Warner Brothers, on weekend nights at around the same hour. I almost always woke up in time to sneak downstairs to watch James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, with the volume as low as possible to not disturb anyone else, but just high enough that I could hear all the dialogue while sitting closely to the TV set. To this day I will never know if I was a successful sneak, or if my parents were aware of this particular nocturnal habit and shrugged it off as a silly phase.

What was nice about watching older films was that they were available to anyone with a working television. There was no consignment to a cable channel ghetto, no additional costs, no claims of exclusivity. While my taste in films changed and became somewhat more sophisticated, and the choice of films available was up to the whims of unseen programmers, television did introduce me to a fairly wide variety of filmmakers from classic Hollywood so I wasn't totally unprepared when I decided to seriously study film. I will even admit there was I time when I thought Ruby Keeler was quite cute.

May 07, 2019

The Grand Duel

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Il Grande Duello / The Big Showdown
Giancarlo Santi - 1972
Arrow Video BD Region A

The booklet that accompanies Arrow's new blu-ray of The Grand Duel includes excerpts of reviews from the Italian press at the time of the film's initial release. What was essentially written off as a derivative imitation of Sergio Leone was included as part of a retrospective of Italian westerns at the Venice Film Festival in 2007. The influence of Leone is hard to miss, especially the series of close-ups of the eyes of Lee Van Cleef and his adversaries in the final shootout. And if the main narrative is not original, that's true of many many films, perhaps more so in genre films such as westerns and horror films, but also someone like the contemporary Hong Sangsoo, whose films frequently follow a similar template.

The Grand Duel was produced at the time when the commercial viability of the Italian western had plateaued. That the film was modestly profitable was primarily due to international pre-sales on the strength of Van Cleef's name. Santi's film did not get a stateside release until 1974. The visual influence of Leone was not simple imitation as Santi had previously worked as an assistant director to the master on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time . . . in the West. Leone thought enough of Santi to originally appoint him as director of Duck, You Sucker! until Rod Steiger insisted on only making the film with Leone as director. The screenplay is by the prolific Ernest Gastaldi, who also wrote the Leone produced comic western, My Name is Nobody, one of the last commercially successful films of the genre.

The main narrative threads are familiar. Sons avenging the deaths of their respective fathers, an innocent man on the run following being framed for murder, a town held in the grips of corrupt businessmen, and a lawman working outside the law. As is pointed out by film historian Stephen Prince in his commentary track, that the story hinges on the memory of a murder connects Santi's film also to Leone's, but also to John Ford's The Man who Shot Liberty Valance in that the viewer sees two different versions of the same incident. I would also add to that a connection to the gialli written by Gastaldi, where there are false or imagined memories. It is not made clear by any of the supplements as to who decided that the flashback sequences should be in black and white, but the fog created by the steam of a waiting train, and the unknown killer seen as an inky black silhouette, both visually seem closer to a horror movie than a western.

There is one remarkable moment when the escaped convict, Vermeer, is suppose to be ambushed by bounty hunters. Van Cleef's character of Clayton takes a stroll around the one-horse town, leaving casual visual hints for Vermeer revealing where the bounty hunters are hidden. This is followed by a series of gunshots and acrobatic leaps on the part of Vermeer, precisely timed and edited by Roberto Perpignani. It's only a handful of shots that lasts a few seconds of screen time. Perpignani's reputation at the time mainly rested on his work with Bernardo Bertolucci, but his work on The Grand Duel should be studied for how to logically edit action sequences.

Stephen Prince is a still active professor at Virginia Tech and his commentary track reflects that, not only discussing the making of The Grand Duel, and that film's relationship to Italian westerns and westerns in general, but also going into film theory, primarily with the visual elements of lighting and framing. I was reminded of my days as a formal Cinema Studies student in a good way. There may be an intellectual heft that usually is absent from most commentary tracks, but I'll take this over the improvised slop that accompanies some home video releases.

The other supplements include an interview with Giancarlo Santi, interviews with Alberto Dentice - the former actor who played Vermeer credited as Peter O'Brien, one of the producers, an uncredited production assistant, a short film with supporting actor Marc Mazza, and a tribute as well to Mazza. Also, Austin Fisher, who has written extensively on Italian westerns, offers his thoughts on The Grand Duel. And if that wasn't enough, there is also a comparison of scenes that are slightly different in the German version of the film. The film, as usual for its time, was completely dubbed after production, but that is definitely Lee Van Cleef in the English language version. I do recommend seeing the Italian version at least for the visually interesting titles that float horizontally from right to left across the screen.

May 01, 2019

The Man who Haunted Himself

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Basil Dearden - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I'm so old, I remember when Roger Moore was a contract player at Warner Brothers, first as the British cousin Beau Maverick in the television series, Maverick. Moore made more of an impression on me later, when his series, The Saint aired in the mid-Sixties, although I was an inconsistent viewer at the time. More recently, I've been watching The Saint in chronological order. Maybe it's television comfort food, but I enjoy the fourth wall introductions as well as seeing guest stars like the still relatively unknown Julie Christie and Samantha Eggar.

The Man who Haunted Himself was made during the time between the series end of The Saint and Moore's taking on the role of James Bond in Live and Let Die. Moore has described his role as his favorite. Moore plays a businessman, Pelham, who survives an accident when he loses control of his car, and for a few moments is clinically dead on the operating table. Pelham comes across people who claim to have seen him him at places and times he does not recall. The conservative and meticulous Pelham has a double who is a bon vivant, not only disrupting Pelham's life, but eventually taking over. While the film is based on a novel, The Strange Case of Mr. Pelham, the essential plot device has its roots in earlier literary works as Poe's "William Wilson" and Dostoevsky's The Double. Basil Dearden's film is primarily of interest due to Moore's performance which might be described as the "anti-Saint".

Unlike the better known roles, Moore as Pelham has a mustache, wears a dark business suit with a derby, a stiff collar, and class tie. Moore's British accent is more noticeable, with a slight change of timbre when he appears as the double. Moore also has a range of facial expressions with the uncertainty of the disoriented Pelham, and devilish glee as the double. James Bond and Simon Templar never were seen sweating as Pelham does knowing his life is out of control.

The blu-ray comes with two supplements ported over from an earlier DVD release from 2006. The first is a commentary track by Moore with Bryan Forbes. Forbes was very briefly in charge of production for EMI Films between 1970 and 1971, and did some polishing on the screenplay. The other supplement has directors Joe Dante and Stuart Gordon discussing the film. And I would advise anyone watching that part to take it with a grain of salt, or better yet, a full shaker. The source novel by Anthony Armstrong was previously filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955. Someone decided that Basil Dearden's film could only be discussed as some kind of Hitchcockian exercise, with Dearden only referred to once by Dante and not even by name.

Basil Dearden might not be as well known or respected on the same level as Alfred Hitchcock, but he should have been given a bit more consideration. Not known for his visual style, Dearden has earned critical respect for several of his films, especially those from the late 1950s through early 1960s that dealt with social issues. The Man who Haunted Himself fits in thematically with Dearden's previous films regarding dual identity, though this time as a psychological thriller. In some ways I find it similar to one of Dearden's best films, The Captive Heart (1946). In the earlier film, which takes place in Germany in World War II, an escaped Czech officer takes on the identity of a dead British officer. Captured, and taken to a P.O.W. camp, the officer has to continue pretending he is the British officer, going so far as to exchange letters with the dead officer's wife, she not knowing her husband is dead, and he not knowing that the two were estranged. The pretend husband shows more affection in the letters and as such becomes the ideal husband. When the Czech officer reveals himself to the widow after the war, after her initial shock, the husband by correspondence becomes the husband in real life. Other Dearden films notable for exploring identity include Sapphire, a police investigation of the death of a bi-racial woman, Victim, about a closeted gay lawyer, and the wonderfully titled The Mind Benders, about a scientist suspected of being a double agent. At least Moore and Forbes know to give credit where credit is due, to Dearden and his producing and writing partner, Michael Relph.

Some of the commentary track is devoted to the making of The Man who Haunted Himself. Moore also talks a bit about working with Dearden on the television series, The Persuaders, as well as his role as James Bond. One bit of coincidence has Pelham mentioning James Bond and "Her Majesty's Secret Service". Forbes talks about his attempt to produce modestly budgeted films for EMI, only to be frustrated by bad distribution and battles with the corporate board. Among the more acclaimed films that Forbes was able to produce was Joseph Losey's The Go-Between. Among the unrealized productions would have included a return to British film by Michael Powell. The Man who Haunted Himself was a box office failure in Britain, with a perfunctory release by a small independent company in the U.S. Dearden worked with Moore in 1971 on three episodes of The Persuaders. In a cruelly ironic twist in 1971, Dearden himself died in an automobile accident at nearly the same location where he had staged Moore's car going out of control.

April 23, 2019

Shooting Stars

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Anthony Asquith and A.V. Bramble - 1928
Kino Classics BD Region A

Maybe it was impact of The Jazz Singer the year before, but 1928 saw the release of some films that looked at what would be the last year of silent films in Hollywood and Britain. Hollywood had King Vidor's Show People and Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command. From Britain, we have the fully restored Shooting Stars, about a love triangle in a fictional studio, that also provided a "behind the scenes" look at how films were produced.

As was pointed out by Pamela Hutchinson in her review for The Guardian, the fictional Zenith studio is seen producing a western and a Mack Sennett style slapstick comedy. Neither genres were made by the real British studios of the time. The western, titled Prairie Love features Zenith's biggest star, Mae Fether, resembling Mary Pickford with her long, blonde tresses. Julian Gordon, in cowboy gear, is reminiscent of Tom Mix, a point brought home when it is revealed that the unseen horse he is seen riding is actually a large wooded hobby horse with the name Tony scratched on its side. Mae and Julian are married, but Mae is in love with Andy Wilkes, a goofy, Chaplinesque would-be lover on screen, and a sophisticated man in private.

The credits for Shooting Stars are a bit confusing and required a little bit of research. The original credits list the film as "by Anthony Asquith", but list A.V. Bramble as the director. Bramble was an actor turned director, whose first directorial credit was in 1917. He directed his last film in 1933, and returned to stage work, save for a supporting role in Carol Reed's Outcasts of the Island. Most of Bramble's work has been lost, but it could be that he could well have been a significant pioneer of the silent era. Essentially, Bramble was the on set supervisor, insurance for having the actual direction done by the novice Asquith. According to historian Peter Cowie, Asquith was also was the film's editor.

Asquith's best known silent film is A Cottage on Dartmoor, considered by some critics to be one of the best British silent films. Asquith, a cinephile before that term was invented, was noted for his use of Russian inspired montage in his silent films. There is some of early experimentation here, with a bicycle stunt gone wrong, Asquith cutting between shots of the stuntman rolling downhill, and brief, handheld shots of the rider and the other cast and crew members on the beach. Also reworked in A Cottage on Dartmoor are a couple of scenes with the use of mirrors, and also a scene of characters watching a movie in a theater.

What I had not expected from any films I've seen by Asquith was the use of extended takes emphasizing the unity of a given space. There is an overhead shot of Mae in the studio walking from her mock western set up a flight of stairs, to an open second floor where Andy Wilkes is filming his comedy. The camera follows Mae from a distance tilting up as she ascends the stairs, followed by laterally traveling the length of the second floor. The final shot is static, save for Mae walking away from the camera, diminishing in size as the studio is an overwhelmingly large and dark cavern. That final shot is a masterpiece in the use of depth of field.

The blu-ray is the restored version from the British Film Institute. Included is the BFI commissioned music track by John Altman. The publicity materials that serve as an extra on the blu-ray indicated that Annette Benson was the star, with her name in larger type than that of Brian Aherne and Donald Calthrop. The brevity of Benson's stardom is inadvertently anticipated, as her career ended shortly after the silent era ended. Donald Calthrop was almost as unlucky as Andy Wilkes when a dressing room accident almost ended his career. The name might not be remembered, but Calthrop appeared in five films by Alfred Hitchcock. Second billed Brian Aherne made two films with Anthony Asquith, and shortly afterwards made his way to Hollywood and a lengthy career on stage and screen. Aherne may not have ruled as studio set like Julian Gordon, actor turned director at the end of Shooting Stars, but as King Arthur, Aherne did get two opportunities to be the king of England.

April 19, 2019

Hagazussa: A Heathen's Curse

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Lukas Feigelfeld - 2018
Doppelgänger Releasing

With its 15th Century rural setting, Hagazussa treads some of the some ground as November and The VVitch. Unlike those two films, there is no obvious display of magic of any kind. And any horror may be too subtle for those viewers who demand graphic violence. The title is the old German word for witch.

The opening shot reminded me of another film where the horror was an unseen presence in the snowy woods. A girl, barely an adolescent, is walking alone in the snow. She is bundled up in clothing that is black or gray. Even the trees are drained of any color. At first there is the impression that the film is in black and white. Those first few shots made me think of Track of the Cat, where William Wellman's film shot in color, muted by costumes and design, save for Robert Mitchum's red overcoat. Whether this was deliberate or coincidental on the part of Feigelfeld is something I can't answer, but the visual and thematic similarities are there.

Whether or not Albrun, the young woman first introduced as the girl in the opening scene, is actually a witch is left open. There are accusations by some of the villagers whom Albrun encounters. This may be due to Albrun, like her mother before her, choosing to live further apart from the others, tending to her goats. The film is almost dialogue free, and Albrun barely speaks, even when visited by a neighbor woman. When asked about the paternity of her baby daughter, Lebrun only explains, "There is no husband", almost suggesting parthenogenesis. When Albrun visits the village priest, the only vague clue is that Albrun must resolve something deemed sacrilegious. She is also given the skull of her dead mother. Strangely, Albrun is undisturbed by any villagers during the time when she most likely could have provoked accusations.

As Albrun, Aleksandra Cwen is almost blank in her facial expression for most of the film. Her performance is primarily in her eyes. There is one scene where the camera focuses on Cwen's face. We can not see what is happening to Albrun, though the viewer can make some assumptions based on the previous shots. But what the audience does see are Cwen's eyes getting wider, while her focus remains looking down, below the bottom of the frame. More erotically suggestive is a scene of Albrun milking a goat. Feigelfeld keeps the viewer from knowing exactly what is going on, keeping the camera distant on Cwen's back in what may be the most horrific scene.

Hagazussa was primarily a student project by Feigelfeld for the German Film and Television Academy Berlin, produced over a period of four years, and partially financed by crowd funding. The unusual music track is by the Greek duo, MMMD, with a combination of custom made instruments and software.

April 17, 2019

Knife + Heart

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Une Couteau dans le Coeur
Yann Gonzalez - 2018
Altered Innocence

While Yann Gonzalez's film has been in release in the U.S. for about a month, some of my comments will reflect the screenings at the Sie Film Center in Denver.

In a perfect situation, an annotated version of b>Knife + Heart would be available to point out all the cinematic references. The opening scene takes place in a gay nightclub, and any reminders of William Friedkin's Cruising would be hard to miss. But what to make of the drummer seen in the background, wearing a full-sized eagle mask on his head, a mask similar to the one worn by Channing Pollock in Georges Franju's Judex? And the alcoholic lesbian director of gay porn movies, Anne, has a poster of Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer, a film about idealized, platonic, heterosexual love. The film mostly takes place in a dark and seedy Paris, in 1979. While there are those specific references to other films, as a whole this is a mash-up of slasher films of that era mixed with the making of a triple X film.

Anne is trying to reconcile with Lois, her lover as well as her editor. Her actors are the victims of violent murders. At the same time as she is trying to discover the connection to the killer, she films a virtual parody of the investigation, with scenes of gay sex. Gonzalez plays with old cinematic tropes of killers and sexual perversity. There is a shout out to William Castle when Anne decides to title her new film, Homocidal. And like the psychosexual films of the past, the explanations usually make any motivations for murder more confusing.

I do like this film much more than Gonzalez's debut, You and the Night. It's a more fully realized dreamscape of transgression. For those more squeamish about watching man on man sex, but don't mind displays of violent deaths, your secret is safe. There are plenty of shots of long knives, but none of long penises, or any full frontal nudity for that matter. Vanessa Paradis goes full diva as Anne as needed, a woman whose unfulfilled desires are barely sublimated by her need to direct men to perform sexually with each other on queue. Also in the cast are The Wild Boys writer-director Bertrand Mandico, Elina Lowensohn, and Romane Bohringer - a reminder that Savage Nights is way overdue a digital rescue.

As part of the Sie Film Center screenings, Knife + Heart will be shown with an actual gay porno film from 1980, Equation to an Unknown. Filmed in 16mm, and restored by Yann Gonzalez, who made his own homage to the original within Knife + Heart. The 1980 film credited to Dietrich de Velsa (Francis Savel), is primarily vignettes of sex mostly between the young members of a soccer team. Even without the explicit moments, Savel shows care in the use of framing and lighting. Was Caravaggio a visual influence with a cast mostly comprised of young men with dark, curly hair? There is also an indication of ambivalence, a suggestion that these young men, barely adults, may indulge in sex with each other, but may not think of themselves as gay. As such, the more narrative portions of Equation to an Unknown are close in spirit to the homosocial world of Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats.

April 15, 2019

Fantomas: Three Film Collection

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Fantomas
Andre Hunebelle - 1964

Fantomas Unleashed / Fantomas se dechaine
Andre Hunebelle - 1965

Fantomas vs. Scotland Yard / Fantomas contre Scotland-Yard
Andre Hunebelle - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD two-disc set Region A

I can't quite explain it, but for myself, these three films from the 1960s feel more dated than the classic French 1913 serial by Louis Feuillade. The original character was introduced by writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre in 1911 in a total of forty-three volumes. A criminal genius, Fantomas was the master of disguise, and had outlandish means at his disposal of committing his crimes. His goal was world domination. Fantomas battles the police inspector Juve and journalist Fandor. The three films here comprise the most recent theatrical version inspired by the books and silent serial. What is of interest to me is the way the films were made as a French response to the popularity of the James Bond films, and the ways the three entries differ from each other.

The three films are generally much lighter than the serial, with more comic moments. For all of his supposed villainy, this Fantomas most revels in acts of anarchy and thumbing his nose at the rich and powerful. He is introduced in the guise of a British lord shopping for jewelry at Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris, buying various diamond necklaces with the casualness of someone picking up groceries at 7-11. The purchase turns out to be theft as the check is written with disappearing ink. A group gathered in front of a store watch the wall full of televisions, all with Commissioner Juve declaring his intention to arrest Fantomas. Someone, Fantomas or one his his henchmen, tosses some dynamite through the shop window. I would think that for the average Parisian, Fantomas might be more of an annoyance than a threat.

In addition to all three films directed by Andre Hunebelle, there is Jean Marais in the double role of Fantomas and Fandor, Mylene Demongeot supplying the eye candy as Helene, news photographer and perpetual fiancee of Fandor's, and comic Louis de Funes as Juve. Marais, who was well into his forties when he became an action star in French movies, was 51 at the time of the first film. De Funes, who actually was a year younger, but looked older, was an established supporting actor at the time of production, becoming a major star with the release of one of his other films prior to the second Fantomas film. Between the physical demands of the roles played by Marais, and de Funes ascending stardom, the three films show a distinct shift in emphasis between the two actors, as well as a diminishing presence of Demongeot.

There are various set pieces that stand out, especially considering that the films were made without the use of CGI. Especially noteworthy is that Jean Marais did much of his own stunt work, especially in the first film. At one point, Marais is walking across the top of a very high crane, and climbs up the ladder from a helicopter, whisking him away from de Funes. The shot was done in a long single take which shows a bit of bravery or foolishness or both on the part of Marais. There must of been some well hidden safety devices used as one of Thailand's top action stars died doing a similar stunt because he was unable to hang on to the airborne ladder.

There is also a chase through a narrow winding road, with Marais and Demongeot going downhill fast in a car lacking brakes or a working transmission. As soon as I saw the car rolling sideways on two wheels, I assumed this was the work of stunt driver Remy Julienne. As it turns out, this is where Julienne's film career began.

The first film's comic highlight has de Funes plugging his ears, blocking out all noise for a night's restful sleep. He is woken by his none-too-bright assistant played by Jacques Dynam, who is seen from de Funes' point of view, miming getting an emergency call about Fantomas' most recent crime. The sound in the film is restored when de Funes removes his ear plugs. The second film features an amusing animated credit sequence which essentially covers the key moments of the first film. There is confusion taking place in Rome, with Fandor and Fantomas both disguises as a scientist, with the real scientist unexpectedly showing up. At a costume party, de Funes dresses up as a pirate with an eyepatch that won't stay down and peg leg that may well have inspired Quentin Tarantino. The third film mostly showcases the perpetually exasperated de Funes and clueless sidekick Dynam in a supposed haunted Scottish castle. Fantomas threatens to kill everyone on earth and move to another planet, but settles for scamming a dozen of the world's wealthiest people for a few million dollars.

The first disc is the first Fantomas film, with a commentary track by Tim Lucas. The history of the character is discussed along with notes on the film, the stars, locations, some of the crew members, and a couple of points on the two sequels. As usual, Lucas is able to add to previously known information regarding the films and filmmakers. This is especially helpful as only the first film received a limited release in the United States, while this is the first legitimate stateside release of the sequels. Lucas is right about cautioning viewers not to take anything that happens in these films seriously. The films also provide a reminder that while French cinema of the 1960s is often thought of in terms of the Nouvelle Vague and Left Bank filmmakers, the Fantomas series represent the kind of films that most French viewers were watching.