February 26, 2015

International Noir

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Edited by Homer B. Pettey and R. Barton Palmer
Edinburgh University Press - 2014

Like most books that are a collection of essays by different authors, the whole isn't as good as some of the parts. While I like the idea of a book that points to genre films outside of Hollywood, what one gets here is a somewhat useful list of films to see, pending availability and subtitles, and a couple of essays that succeed in making one want to watch the films discussed.

My frustrations with this volume is that noir or neo-noir films from several countries are not discussed, and that the criteria for sources is strictly based on printed essays, ignoring much of the film scholarship that can be culled from online sources. There is also the problem with several essays discussing what is or ain't film noir, with some acknowledgment that the term originated in dissuasion of a particular group of French films produced in the Thirties. As it is, you have Susan Hayward establishing why certain films are or are not film noir in her discussion of French films made between 1947 through 1979, while Stephen Teo's list of Korean film noir plays loosely with that concept to include the horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, and the high tech heist film, The Thieves. My other problem with Teo's essay is that the discussion of Asian films is restricted to South Korea and Hong Kong. The less knowledgeable or adventurous reader may remain unaware of films of interest in other Southeast Asian countries.

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A Bittersweet Life (Kim Ji-woon - 2005)

David Desser remains consistently readable for me, with scholarship not bogged down by theory or academic lingo. Still, I would have to wonder why he jumped from the Nikkatsu Studio film from the mid-Fifties issued by Criterion on DVD, to Kaizo Hayashi's Maiku Hama trilogy, as well as films by Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike, while ignoring the wonderfully delirious "Line" series mostly filmed by Teruo Ishii for Shin-toho in the early Sixties. A rough analogy would be a discussion of Hollywood film noir that focuses on Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, but overlooks Edgar G. Ulmer's Murder is my Beat. Desser is best in putting the films he does discuss within the context of Japanese culture as well as the Japanese film industry at the time of production.

Andrew Netsingen points out the characteristics of what he calls Nordic noir. What is available to be seen at this point would be the more recent entries such as Headhunters, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Corey Creekmur's look at Indian cinema, the shortest of the essays, is restricted to Hindi language films, also giving context to the films in terms of the changes within the film industry as well as cultural shifts.

I have wonder why an exploration of The Man who wasn't There and Body Heat in relation to the writings of James Cain is included, especially when discussion of the film version of Tay Garnett's The Postman always Rings Twice does not mention either Luchino Visconti's earlier Ossessione, or Bob Rafelson's more sexually explicit remake (or while we're at it, Christian Petzold's Jerichow). Considering the number of times she is mentioned, as well as her ability to write seriously about film clearly, the editors probably should have turned this project over to Ginette Vincendeau, someone with the ability to connect popular culture with scholarly investigations.

My main problem is that International Noir is not international enough. There is no mention of Italian cinema, with not only no mention of Ossessione, but also nothing about films that bridged the gap between Black and Yellow, that is to say Noir and Giallo, with work such as Mario Bava's The Girl who knew too Much, or Dario Argento's Bird with the Crystal Plumage, inspired by Fredric Brown's Screaming Mimi and Gerd Oswald's noir classic film version. One can also cite films from Spain, Germany, and Thailand, among other countries that have contributed their versions of noir and neo-noir. An entire essay, possibly a book, could even be devoted to the multiple variations word wide of Strangers on a Train. There is a solid book to be had about the international variations of film noir. Pettey and Palmer's book isn't the book it could have been, but can hopefully be used as a stepping stone for further, and more thorough, investigations.

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Nightfall (Chow Hin Yeung - 2012)

February 24, 2015

52 Pick-Up

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John Frankenheimer - 1986
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I saw 52 Pick-Up at the time of its initial release. Among films directed by John Frankenheimer, it's a middling effort. Even though Elmore Leonard had a hand in writing the screenplay, it's not among the better adaptations of his books. There's one scene that comes close to the kind of corrosive humor found in Leonard's novels. After the combined efforts of Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret disarm would be murderer Clarence Williams III, Scheider offers Williams a bandage for his bruised nose. In retrospect, what we have is Frankenheimer's best film in what turned out to be a lousy decade.

The basic plot involves the attempt by a disparate trio to blackmail industrialist Harry Mitchell with videotape of his rendezvous with a young "model". Mitchell tries to avoid revealing anything to his wife, Barbara. When the stakes are raised with Mitchell to be framed for murder, he come up with a plan to turn the blackmailers against each other for the coveted loot.

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Throughout a good part of the film, Frankenheimer keeps the camera moving on his characters. The effect is that it there is no other choice but to move forward. One of the rare times that there are static shots is during scenes of emotional intimacy between Scheider and Ann-Margret. Much of the film also takes place in shadowy areas, emphasizing the morally ambiguous behavior that Scheider and Ann-Margret fall into when dealing with the blackmailers. The only scenes in clear open light are in the first and final scenes, establishing and re-establishing the relationship between Harry and Barbara.

Where the film works best is in diving into the seedy side on Los Angeles in the mid 1980s. One of the blackmailers, Leo, operates a joint where customers can take photographs of the available nude models with polaroid camera. Alan manages a porn theater, and shoots movies on videotape on the side. It is suggested that the murderous Bobby Shy has worked as a pimp. There is one scene at a party featuring several porn stars including the ubiquitous Ron Jeremy, Amber Lynn, and Sharon Mitchell.

The other reason to take a look, or revisit, is for John Glover's performance as Alan, the lead blackmailer. To describe Alan as oily or sleazy is inadequate. Elmore Leonard's bad guys are usually the most entertaining characters in his novels. Alan is smart enough to read and understand accounting ledgers, but his garish bachelor pad with the ceiling mirror is indicative of someone with no distinction between his professional life and personal proclivities, and unsurprisingly, his greed gets the better of him.

And I hope the performer known as Vanity is happy where ever she is. Her moment of stardom was brief, but the actress introduced to many of us, strutting around in music videos usually wearing suggestive lingerie, was one gorgeous enough to induce me to spend my money on otherwise forgettable Action Jackson and the wondrously dopey The Last Dragon.

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February 22, 2015

Coffee Break

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Andy Devine and Dana Andrews in Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur - 1946)

February 19, 2015

Ten Seconds to Hell

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Robert Aldrich - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The choice of artwork for the new blu ray of Ten Seconds to Hell is from the Italian poster. What I like about that poster is that what is suggested, with that face of Jeff Chandler's as a partial skull comes closer to suggesting some of Aldrich's thematic concerns. Death is never very far away for the six men who take on the job of diffusing bombs found in various locations in a ruined, post World War II Berlin. In the way that their faces are lit, there is the sense that Chandler and Jack Palance were cast in part because of their nearly skeletal faces. Chandler, forty years old at the time of filming, looks at least a decade older in some shots. While a collapse in communications meant that Ten Seconds to Hell was the last of three films Aldrich made starring Palance, many of the shots emphasize the tautness of Palance's face, with pain or anguish unmistakably expressed.

What I didn't know until I did a bit of research is that Aldrich's original cut ran over two hours. The version we have available is the theatrical release, a little over an hour and a half long. I have no idea if any of the deleted footage is still in someone's vault, nor do I know what was cut regarding the content. Aldrich has been dismissive of this film, and has readily taken some of the blame for the critical and commercial failure. Time has not made Ten Seconds to Hell a better movie or some kind of lost masterpiece, but visually, it is very much an Aldrich film. Additionally, with a script by Aldrich done with Teddi Sherman, the film demonstrates the consistency of Aldrich's themes revisited throughout his other films.

Others have already pointed out that the six demolition experts make for a not so dirty half dozen. They are somewhat similar to the characters of Aldrich's most famous film in that they are former rejects of the German military, who were assigned to the bomb squad instead of prison or concentration camps. There is a very loose sense of camaraderie between the six, and a sense of not belonging to society at large. Unlike the Dirty Dozen, the six men, recruited by Allied forces to diffuse stray bombs, work alone, each man taking on an assignment in turn. The six pool part of their money, based on a bet that the funds will be claimed by whomever is survives the next three months.

There is suspense during the scenes of bomb diffusion, even though you have to figure that Palance or Chandler would be the last to go, as you don't go killing off the main star in the middle of your movie (unless you're Alfred Hitchcock). Still, there is tension, especially in an almost silent scene of Palance alone in the rubble, diffusing a bomb, sweating, the only sound being the squeaking of a bolt loosened. In another scene, Aldrich just shows the arms, legs and hands of one of the men diffusing a bomb, unsuccessfully, so that we don't know until after the explosion who was killed.

As in other Aldrich films, Chandler and Palance alternate between being partners and rivals. The rivalry is in part philosophical, with the seemingly nonchalant Chandler, concerned his needs and winning at all costs, versus the brooding Palance who risks his life on behalf of the other team members. There is also the romantic rivalry for Martine Carol, another outsider as a French woman married to a German officer, also without a sense of belonging anywhere.

There are a couple of Aldrich's signature overhead shots. Much of the film is made up of low angle shots, frequently with two or three characters within the frame, sometimes placed in such a way as to play with differing proportions within the shot. Part of it is also that this is a more economical way of presenting the characters, but it also goes back to the thematic concerns of characters sharing a space that barely contains them or their respective tensions. This is made especially clear near the end when Palance and Chandler work together on a double fused bomb, only part of their faces seen in an extreme close-up.

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February 17, 2015

No Tears for the Dead

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Uneun Namja
Lee Jeong-Beom - 2014
CJ Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The original title translates as "Crying Man". The English title does convey the attitude of some of the characters, and how the allowance of human emotion gets in the way, especially if your occupation is that of professional killer.

The killer is a guy named Gon, who accidentally kills a four year old girl at the time that he kills her father in the back room of a Los Angeles nightclub. Working on behalf of a pan-Asian syndicate, Gon is sent to Korea to kill the mother as she has some incriminating evidence. The girl's mother, Mogyeong, is introduced, working in a brokerage where she has successful made a deal involving a drug manufacturer. When someone points out that eighty people will be unemployed, Mogyeong's response is that the goal is to make money, not be sentimental. Although Lee Jeong-Beom shows that Mogyeong has channeled her grief into her work, he could have gone a bit deeper in creating parallels between the mercenary who kills people and the mercenary who kills companies, both for profit. Making money the impetus for most of the characters here. The essential message might be one regarding the corrupting influence of big money, but Lee also is concerned with a bit of superficial psychology regarding Gon, and how his childhood influenced his present day actions.

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Lee's previous film was The Man from Nowhere. There are a few fleeting similarities, especially with the main character being a rogue hit man. Working with a much larger budget, there is a flashback that takes place in the desert area of California, as well as more elaborate set pieces including a room full of computer equipment and large monitors, and a mob hit done with one very large truck.

One of the more visually striking scenes involves Gon in a fist fight with a rival killer. The room is illuminated by sunlight filtered through the slates of a window shade. The alternating light and shadow against the two men, seen mostly in close up, gives the scene an abstract quality. Nothing else in No Tears for the Dead comes close in visual panache.

The DVD comes with a "Making of" supplement which is of some interest in showing the mechanics of how how certain scenes were set up. What is billed as a "Director's Commentary" is not an alternate soundtrack, but simply a few minutes of Lee discussing what he was aiming for in making this film. Lee explains why he chose the well known song, "Danny Boy", performed by the Mogyeong and her daughter in separate scenes. Not explained is the choice of old pop hit, "Smooth Operator", performed by the nightclub singer in the opening scene. There's no specific reference to any character with this song, but I suspect the choice was due to the title, and the criminals' false sense of invulnerability.

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February 15, 2015

Coffee Break

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Maureen O'Hara and James Stewart in The Rare Breed (Andrew V. McLaglen - 1966)

February 13, 2015

Le Pont du Nord

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Jacques Rivette - 1981
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Possibly the kind of coincidence that Jacques Rivette might have found amusing, but I saw Le Pont du Nord on the day I first read about the restrictions of filming movie scenes involving guns in Paris. It's not only because there is some shooting in Rivette's film, but also the reasoning behind this new rule is in response to some of the so-called terrorist activity in Paris. How this connects to Rivette is that his film, shot in the Fall of 1980, was in part a response to what goes going in Paris at that time. One of the characters collects newspaper clippings related to some of the high profile and violent news of the time. Those who follow recent French cinema will probably recognize the name Mesrine. Additionally, the character played by Bulle Ogier, while not providing details, hints at being part of a group that robbed a bank ostensibly as a political act. The events that were a year old at the time of the film's initial release still have some contemporary relevance.

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Two women meet on a Paris street. Marie has just been released from prison. Baptiste rides around in her motorbike until a chance encounter of the two women causes an accident, leaving the damaged motorbike behind. Marie is claustrophobic to the point where she orders two croissants from the doorway of a bakery, and keeps the door open in a phone booth when she makes a call. She is attempting to reunite with a man named Julien who says he will be ready for her in three days. Baptiste essentially acts as Marie's shadow, following her around before becoming a traveling companion as such. Marie's claustrophobia is so strong that the two sleep the first night on an outdoor bench. Although budgetary were the original impetus, Marie's condition provides an explanation for why the entire film is made up of exterior shots, shot in 16mm using available light.

Unlike Cahiers du Cinema cohorts Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Rivette was not known for making obvious references to other movies. The exception would be in this film. Baptiste convinces Maria that they can sleep inside an all night movie theater, appealing to Marie's needs to be in open spaces as the current film in question is The Big Country. Leaving the theater the next morning, we see that the new film is La Prisonniere.

Baptiste discovers that Julien is carrying a map of Paris. A second map is found, with Paris divided into a spiral of gridded spaces. Marie explains how the spaces relate to an old game, and the significance of some of the spaces. Marie and Baptiste may or may not be moving in a deliberate direction, based on the maps and their interactions with the mystery men that appear on their journey.

The blu ray includes a booklet containing Jacques Rivette's "director's statement", which raises more questions. French film critic, Jean Narboni, also has his "Six Questions". While certain narrative questions remain unclear, there is a visual essay that breaks down the locations in Paris where Le Pont du Nord was filmed, adding insight to where Rivette was playing with the geography of the city he seemed to know intimately.