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April 23, 2018

Two Films by Duccio Tessari

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A Pistol for Ringo
Duccio Tessari -1965

The Return of Ringo
Duccio Tessari - 1965
Arrow Video BD Regions A/B

My introduction to Duccio Tessari was in the mid-1970s with two of his crime films. The first, released in the US as No Way Out starred Alain Delon as a hitman forced to do one last job. The other, made a year later, was Three Tough Guys. Dino De Laurentiis was producing English language films with a combination of American and European actors, with Tesseri at the helm of this entertaining thriller featuring Isaac Hayes, Fred Williamson and Lino Ventura as the trio in question. No Way Out had some stylistic flourishes that made me more intrigued about Tessari's other work.

It was through reading Christopher Frayling's books on Sergio Leone and Italian westerns that I first learned that Tessari had an uncredited hand in the screenplay of A Fistful of Dollars. The connection between the two preceded that film, with both assisting the writing and production of The Last Days of Pompeii in 1959, and both also among the eight writers on Sergio Corbucci's Duel of the Titans (1961). Because of the delayed release, and general ignorance of trends in Italian genre filmmaking, stateside viewers were unaware that A Fistful of Dollars was one of several westerns produced at the same time, usually with Italian directors working in Spain with a multi-national cast. A Pistol for Ringo, produced in late 1964, was released in the US in November 1966, almost three months before US audiences were introduced to the man with no name.

Tessari's films feature essentially much of the same cast, but with two different stories, different locations, and two very different Ringos. In the first film, Ringo, also known as Angel Face, acts as the conduit between the townspeople and the bandits who have robbed the bank. His services don't come cheap as he negotiates a higher percentage of the loot, depending on which side he is ultimately assisting. Tessari's Ringo here is the opposite of Clint Eastwood's character, well-dressed, loquacious, clean-shaven. He is introduced playing hopscotch before gunning down a quartet that was after him. Tesseri makes use of Giuliano Gemma's charm and athletic ability - Gemma was a stunt man and does his own stunts here. What really impresses is the amount of visual detail Tessari crams into a shot, often with his actors moving in and out of the frame with the camera following the action. A medium shot of actress Nieves Navarro has her with her back against a window. Looking through the window, onto the street, one can see some activity in the background. When the bandits are eating dinner at the house of the town's patriarch, one of the bandits can be seen on the side still chewing on a big slice of meat still outside of his mouth. In this way, Tessari makes me think of Richard Lester, where he will have the main characters placed prominently within the frame, but the viewer needs to glance to the sides to pick up other bits of business.

I'm not even sure if Gemma's character is ever called Ringo in The Return of Ringo. Taking place just months after the end of the American Civil War, Gemma plays a Union soldier returning to his small Texas town. The story is a variation of The Odyssey and the original script even had Odyssey as part of the title. A more serious film than the first, the town is virtually empty of street activity, and in a perpetual dust storm. The screenplay by Tessari with genre stylist Fernando DI Leo, has the unusual racial component of having the town taken over by a gang of well dressed Mexicans who have reclaimed the area as part of Mexico, making the Anglo residents second-class citizens. While not as visually stylized, the second film is notable for the complex traveling shots, as well as some unexpected religious imagery.

The blu-ray includes interviews from 2008 and 2009 with actress Lorella de Luca, Tesseri's wife, and star Giuliano Gemma. Western film historians Henry Parke and Courtney Joyner provide commentary tracks on both films, placing both within the context of genre filmmaking in Italy in the 1960s. There is also a discussion on the Ringo films by the ubiquitous Tony Rayns.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:20 AM

April 22, 2018

Coffee Break

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Kevin Kline and Dominque Pinon in My Old Lady (Israel Horowitz - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:03 PM

April 20, 2018

A Violent Life

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Une Vie Violente
Thierry De Peretti - 2017
Icarus Films Region 1 DVD

Thierry De Peretti uses an unusual visual strategy for filming his main character, the 27 year old Stephane, played by actor Jean Michelangeli. Most of the time, Stephane is not seen clearly. His face is in the shadows. His back is to the camera. There are only a couple of times when the camera is focused on Michelangeli, always from a distance, in the sunlight. The most sustained view is an extended lateral tracking shot of Stephane, walking along the sidewalk, fully certain of his sense of sense and his impending fate.

A Violent Life is De Peretti's second feature, and again takes place in Corsica. His debut feature, Les Apaches was about a quartet of young men of Moroccan descent involved in small time theft that escalates to an ultimately meaningless tragedy within the group. De Peretti returns to Corsica and the more recent past of the country, where simultaneous to factions wanting different degrees of independence from France, also saw violence between rival groups. The film opens with titles giving a brief overview of the historic context to the story.

De Peretti keeps his distance visually through most of the film employing full or medium shots of his characters. There is a sense of detachment to those scenes other filmmakers would usually emphasize for their dramatic qualities. The camera is a distant observer to an early scene with two men sitting in the front seat of a car, each shot at close range by two other mean, with one pouring gasoline on the car and lighting it on fire. Similarly, when Stephane's group of nationalist activists ignite bombs around the city of Bastia, we see a full shot of the main city, with the sight and sound of explosions at various points, while the camera remains as if a passive observer.

As De Peretti is himself from Corsica, one might interpret the visual distancing as a way of providing a counter-balance to that which might considered personal. The major portion of the film takes place in 1997, when the filmmaker was the same age as his main character. At this time, there is very little about De Peretti in English. There is a quote in which he describes A Violent Life as being about a "bruised generation" of which he is a part. From a French interview, De Peretti has stated that wanted, " . . . to give an account, to recall to the memory some atypical and representative paths of the people of my generation. That of this young nationalist militant, Nicolas Montigny, who was killed in Bastia in 2001 and whose character of A Violent Life is inspired, is perhaps one of the most brilliant. He was a young man of his time but who evolved in a fairly conservative environment, the Corsican nationalist movement of the late 90s, I liked this contradiction."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:30 AM

April 18, 2018

Ruby Gentry

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King Vidor - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Considering that Duel in the Sun was retitled "Lust in the Dust", and that there are some obvious similarities to that film, I'm surprised that Ruby Gentry wasn't renamed "Romp in the Swamp". Familiarity, plus a modest budget and under ninety-minute running time helped make this reunion of Vidor and Jennifer Jones a more profitable venture than the 1946 epic. This time, Jones was tussling in the dirt with Charlton Heston, a character as thoughtless as the one played by Gregory Peck, but without Peck's wicked charm.

As Ruby, Jones is first seen in the distance, standing somewhat provocatively in a doorway, wearing a body hugging shirt and jeans. The town's new, youngish doctor, taking a gander at the fabled woman, is told, "Don't let it shake you, Doc. It's only anatomy." Jennifer Jones wearing a bullet bra is almost enough to distract from her now looking about a decade too old for her role. Much of Jones' career has been based on playing characters younger than her real age, and she even appears as the 16 year old Ruby in a flashback. Those kind of concerns disappear the moment Jones scratches Heston's face rather than shrug off an unwanted pat on the rear.

Even if the story of class division in a small Southern town, and a woman "from the wrong side of the tracks" may strike contemporary viewers as archaic, Ruby Gentry might well be reevaluated, at least in part, for the depiction of one woman's agency. Ruby is the only major female character. She has a love/hate relationship with Boake, a would-be entrepreneur who sees Ruby only in discrete liaisons before trading love for money. The other two female characters, the wife of businessman Jim Gentry, and the socialite, Tracy, are valued for the social standing within the community. Ruby, living with her backwoods family, is valued only for her beauty, but is otherwise considered as someone who needs to remember her place. Ruby is subjected to various cruelties by the town following her marriage to the newly widowed Jim Gentry, and the aftermath of Jim's accidental death. When Ruby gets her revenge, it's beyond the comprehension of Boake. Within the context of when the film was made, Ruby has to be punished, and you have to wonder why, after realizing the extent of her wealth, she even wants to stay in a town where she is openly disliked. But there is brief pleasure for Ruby and the audience when the town's movers and shakers get their comeuppance.

Among the best visual moments are the reunion of Ruby and Boake, with Charlton Heston's face illuminated by a flashlight, following the voice of Jennifer Jones. Later, the two drive along the beach, sitting on the car seats, Heston singing along to the radio, while the car loses control and careens into the water. Later, something of a visual end note to the scene of Heston's face seen by flashlight, Heston enters the bedroom of Jones, his face in close-up, lit by an overhead light that is turned off. That the film was shot in black and white is especially an advantage in the climax, taking place in a studio set swamp made more otherworldly with its shroud of fog.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:19 AM

April 16, 2018

Enigma Rosso

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Red Rings of Fear / Rings of Fear / Trauma / Virgin Killer
Alberto Negrin - 1978
Scorpion Releasing BD Region A

With six credited writers on the screenplay, I would think at least one of them was familiar with Agatha Christie. Keep in mind that before giallo was associated with a film genre, it was a literary genre consisting of Italian paperbacks of English and American mysteries. Among the more prominent authors was Christie. I bring her up because a significant part of Enigma Rosso appears to be inspired by one of Christie's books. I will not mention the title because it could more easily be a spoiler for Negrin's film, but I would have been unaware of the similarity had I not seen a recent film adaptation.

Among those with a hand in the screenplay were Franco Ferrini, just beginning his career which would include writing credits on several films by Dario Argento, German actor Peter Berling, who as a writer contributed to a couple of Italian crime thrillers, and director Negrin. Also listed was Massimo Dallamano, who had planned to make this film the followup to his previous films about high school girls involved with sex and murder. Dallamano died in a car accident before Enigma Rosso was produced. One can only speculate on how different a film we might have had based on his previous work. This was television director Alberto Negriin's first and only theatrical film.

The discovery of a sexually violated high school girl's body wrapped in plastic, unsuccessfully disposed of by a river, leads to an investigation of the girls three friends at an exclusive boarding school. As most people who love Italian genre films know, it's not the story that's important, but how the story is told. Giallo films, at least those that are most revered, are known for their visual style. Any visual flourishes here are few and far between. While this is purely subjective, Negrin seems unable to distinguish between the erotic and the exploitive, with the camera lingering longer than needed on the girls taking a shower, including those who have no narrative function. Worse is the cross-cutting between one girl's pain from the insertion of an oversized dildo, and shots of forceps while another girl is getting an abortion. Not that young women are the only victims in this film. What happens to a dog shouldn't happen to a dog.

On the plus side, the casually amoral detective played by Fabio Testi forces a confession out of an effete Jack Taylor by taking him on a roller coaster ride. One of the nicer moments is of Testi, lounging on his bed, with his two pet cats crawling over him. A reference to a 17th Century poem by John Donne provides a welcome literary tweak.

Overall, Enigma Rosso is a film best appreciated by genre completists. The blu-ray here is of the film in its correct widescreen aspect ratio, with a choice of Italian with English subtitles or English language dubbing. This was a European co-production with cast from Italy, Spain and Germany. The commentary track by Nathaniel Thompson keeps track of most of the main actors and the history of the production.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:10 AM

April 15, 2018

Coffee Break

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Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:18 AM

April 14, 2018

Aloha, Bobby and Rose

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Floyd Mutrux - 1975
Scorpion Releasing BD Region A

Every once in a while, I expect to review a new DVD or Blu-ray that turns out not to have been sent my way. Less frequently, I will receive a disc I hadn't planned on reviewing. Such is the case with Aloha, Bobby and Rose. Since I have been casually following Floyd Mutrux's career, there was some interest, although I passed on seeing this film at the time of its theatrical release.

The essential story is about Bobby, a part-time auto mechanic who never has dollar in his pocket, who likes to race his 1968 red Camaro, and Rose, a young single mother with the dream of visiting Hawaii. An impromptu date goes wrong when Bobby decides to pretend to stick up the cashier at a liquor store. Rose knocks over the shotgun wielding manager, who in turn accidentally kills the cashier. The two are then on the run from the law as Bobby is convinced that no one will believe their story of a prank gone wrong.

Some of the criticism directed to the film is that it hinges on the main characters doing dumb things. It's the kind of charge that can be tossed at a lot of films. One can place Aloha, Bobby and Rose with past films like Quicksand (1950) where Mickey Rooney's pilfering of a few dollars from a cash register initiates a series of bigger problems that he can not control, or the more recent Good Time with Robert Pattinson as the inept bank robber on the run. In the blu-ray's supplements, Mutrux mentions Godard's Breathless, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as criminal lovers on the run as his inspiration, although it should be mentioned that Godard was in turn partially inspired by the Joseph Lewis film, Gun Crazy. One critic who has expressed his enthusiasm is the New Yorker's Richard Brody.

Aloha, Bobby and Rose was produced on a budget of $60,000.00, but struck such a popular chord that it made $35 million dollars. I have to assume that everyone involved loved Mutrux enough to work for scale, especially when the crew involves seasoned professionals including William Fraker as cinematographer and Danford Greene as editor. There's also the soundtrack which is heavy on Elton John, but also includes several vintage Motown songs and even Bob Dylan during the end credits. What may not be understood by current viewers is that using actual hit records from the original artists was still a relatively new phenomenon at the time this film was produced.

The film appears to have shot using minimal or available light, with several moments having a documentary feel. Mutrux's previous film, Dusty and Sweets McGee was also filmed on the streets of Los Angeles, in some of the same areas. That film, the filmmaker's directorial debut, also shot by Fraker, was filmed in the style known at the time as cinema verite, that some viewers mistook the actors for real life heroin addicts.

In addition to the interview with Mutrux, there are interviews with star Pau Le Mat and supporting player Robert Carradine as part of this new blu-ray. The three give career overviews in addition to discussing their respective work on Aloha, Bobby and Rose.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:49 PM

April 12, 2018

The Psychopath

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Freddie Francis - 1966
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

When Robert Bloch was hired to write screenplays during the Sixties and early Seventies, I'm sure the producers were hoping for lightning to strike again. After all, Bloch had become a famous name based on being the author of Psycho. What seemed to be constantly ignored was that not only was film of the same title more famous than the relatively little known novel, but that the film was not the novel. Save for the basic plot, the film took on a life of its own due to the combination of talent involved, including Alfred Hitchcock's audacity as a filmmaker, Bernard Herrmann's screeching strings, Alma Reville's uncredited contributions, and the various factors that make Psycho, the film, a film of continued fascination.

Hitchcock made Psycho in response to the challenge of Macabre by low-budget shock auteur William Castle. And it was Castle who's made the best of the post-Psycho films, Homicidal, the enjoyably loopy tale of a gender bending killer, with the high point being the beheading of an old lady with the head tumbling down the stairs. Bloch had nothing to do with that film. In the meantime, the early Sixties did see a slew of films that would try to cash in the success of Hitchcock with titles like Paranoiac, Craze, Nightmare and Hysteria, all coincidentally directed by Freddie Francis, typecast as a go-to specialist in horror films. And I'm struck with the sense of desperation, as if the people involved were convinced that recycling plot elements and even the title were good ideas.

As obvious as the title The Psychopath is, at one point the film was to be titled Schizo. The basic mystery revolves around a string of murders where the killer leaves an effigy, a doll made to look like the victim. The film takes place in then present day London. Aside from the title, there is an invalid older mother and her weak-willed son who live together. I wouldn't mind the plot points, red herrings, and periodic lapses of narrative or visual logic if only the filmmakers had chosen to be less discrete in their presentation of horror. The wheel chair bound mother lives among the hundreds of dolls she's created, and the scene introducing her and the climax that The Psychopath achieves an almost satisfying level of creepiness. There should also be credit to composer Elizabeth Lutyens for her film score, with its discordant melodies sparingly heard on the soundtrack, partially reminiscent of Prokovief's main theme from Lt. Kije Suite.

Troy Howarth's commentary track really elevates the blu-ray. The film by itself is at best a mildly entertaining thriller. Aside from the usual biographical bits of the key actors and crew, Howarth reveals an even bigger mystery regarding the making of the film. Reportedly, the original cut of The Psychopath was a brief seventy minutes in length, with the murder scenes not in the screenplay, and the ending changed regarding the identity of the killer. Even stranger is the question of who filmed several of the scenes in question - Freddie Francis or producer Milton Subotsky. Knowing some of the history of the production of The Psychopath makes it more understandable why certain narrative elements don't make sense. I'm still puzzled by the setting of the first murder, a narrow alley with a garbage can on the left side, a literal dead end passageway as seen from the view of the victim. In a following shot, again from the point of view of the victim, that alley is wide enough for a killer car, and where did that garbage can go?

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:10 AM

April 10, 2018

Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity

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Edited by Irene Gonzalez-Lopez and Michael Smith
Edinburgh University Press - 2018

Please note that all Japanese names in this review will be in western format, with personal name followed by family name.

This is the first book in English on the Japanese actress and director, Kinuyo Tanaka. Unlike some book made up of chapters by different scholars, this is generally a more unified effort with apparent coordination regarding the presentation of Tanaka's history as an actress and director, as well as how her work fits in within the context of Japanese history. What we have is an overview, with discussion of even the best known films as an actress limited to a couple of paragraphs, and chapters devoted specifically to four of the six films directed by Tanaka. In other words - a good start.

Tanaka's career spanned more than fifty years. Born in 1909, her first film appearance was in 1924 at age fourteen. Her last role was in 1976, one year prior to her death. Mostly known for her work with Kenji Mizoguchi in the late Forties through early Fifties, Tanaka also made films under the direction of Hiroshi Shimizu, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Akira Kurosawa and even a late career appearance in Yoji Yamada's Tora-san series. What is discussed here as an actress is the ways Tanaka played roles that varied based on the changes of women's roles within Japanese society as a result of the various social and historical forces. Also an examination of Tanaka as a star, the actor as auteur, where there were certain expectations that dictated her behavior in the narrative, especially those films with Tanaka's personal name, Kinuyo, as part of the film title. Also looked at is the tension with Tanaka expected to represent a certain type of Japanese woman.

While several of Tanaka's films as an actress are easily accessible, her work as a director takes a little more effort for first-hand inquiry. Two of her films, Love Letter and The Eternal Breasts are available with English subtitles on Youtube. The last of her six directed films, Love Under the Crucifix was found as an Australian DVD. Curiously, while a couple of the articles mention Dorothy Arzner, the female director who worked with female screenwriters, similar to Tanaka, no mention is made of Ida Lupino. While parallels are not exact, both Tanaka and Lupino began their respective film careers at about the same ago, and both turned to directing in anticipation of substantial roles lessening as they got older. One might argue similarities in films about women force to live in the margins, Lupino's Outrage and Tanaka's Love Letter, as well as both having stories of a woman's medical crisis with Never Fear and The Eternal Breasts respectively. The Eternal Breasts and Tanaka's similarity to Lupino is discussed further in Senses of Cinema.

Where I do take issue with the chapters on Tanaka as a film director is that there is no in depth discussion on the role of Christianity in her films. What makes this significant and highly unusual for a Japanese filmmaker is that reference to Christianity appears in the three films I've seen. Near the conclusion of Love Letter, "He who is without sin . . ." is quoted to a man unforgiving of a woman who turned to prostitution for survival. A character has Christian funeral service in The Eternal Breasts. Taking place at the end of the 16th Century, Love Under the Crucifix is about Japanese Christians at the time Christianity was banned from Japan.

Also, while Tanaka may not have the identifiable visual style of someone like Ozu, what I noticed from the three films seen is that she will use framing devices during key moments. In Love Letter, when Reikichi and Michiko are reunited for the first time following World War II, they are seen framed through the window of the train they were about to board. In The Eternal Breasts, Fumiko, hospitalized for breast cancer, walks toward the camera in a long tracking shot, ending with her standing in front of the bars of the morgue. The interior set design of walls and screens serves as a visual commentary on the relationship of the characters in Love Under the Crucifix, most notably when Gin states her love for Ukon, with both in front of a large, open entry to her house.

It would appear that English language scholarship on Kinuyo Tanaka is just beginning. In addition, this volume is helpful in better understanding some of the outside forces that also played a part in the history of Japanese cinema.

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Masayuki Mori and Yoshiko Yuga in Love Letter (1953)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:53 PM

April 08, 2018

Coffee Break

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Olga Kurylenko in The November Man (Roger Donaldson - 2014)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:09 AM

April 03, 2018

Stage Struck

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Allan Dwan - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

I still have a fleeting memory of meeting Gloria Swanson at Telluride in 1974. There was was a screening of Sadie Thompson, a 16mm print of the existing version of the 1928 film, in a room set up with a projector, a screen and some chairs. Swanson was there as the guest of James Card, the curator at the George Eastman House and co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival. That version of the film was incomplete, and Swanson spoke afterwards about the importance of film preservation. I'm not going to even try and guess where Swanson or Card would stand on the digital divide, but films that would either only be seen at, for example, the Museum of Modern Art, if at all, have more recently become more widely available on home video. As important as film preservation is, the cherry on top is being able to see the films.

What I liked best about Stage Struck is that it showed Gloria Swanson as a very able, physical comic actress. Her make-up was, if not naturalistic, less garish - maybe this is subjective on my own part, but Swanson is attractive here in a way that eluded me in previously seen films. There's a moment when Swanson is teasing leading man Lawrence Gray, flexing a muscle on her skinny arm. She playfully bops Gray on the nose, and walks away, waving at Gray, at one point sticking out her tongue. It's a brief moment that I would imagine caught the attention of Raoul Walsh, whose female characters could often be described as feisty.

Swanson plays the part of a waitress in a workingman's restaurant, with dreams of being an actress. Swanson pines for the restaurant's wheat-cake flipper, played by Gray, who demonstrates his his prowess with a turner in front of a window for his adoring female fans. When she's not taking mail-order drama lessons, Swanson devotes her free time to doing Gray's laundry. But Gray only has eyes for professional actresses, and soon those eyes are set on the visiting Gertrude Astor. Astor is the star of an itinerant troupe that performs on a traveling show boat. There are a couple of scenes that bring to mind Charles Chaplin. In an earlier scene, Swanson is carrying a large tray loaded with dishes, precariously balanced on her hands, while trying to navigate her way through the crowd of workers who have come for breakfast. In the middle of the crowd rushing to work, Swanson is pushed out of the restaurant, still carrying the tray, only to trip on the sidewalk on her way back. Later, the five foot tall Swanson is tricked into a boxing match with the almost six foot tall Gertrude Astor. What is notable is that Stage Struck was made before Modern Times and City Lights. An interview with Roger Ebert as well as the commentary track by Dwan scholar Frederic Lombardi clarify what real life connections there were between Swanson and Chaplin. The blu-ray cover also quotes Photoplay magazine from 1925 comparing Swanson to Chaplin.

Former Keystone Kop, Ford Sterling, takes a couple of pratfalls as well, notably falling into his beloved drum after a young boy beans him on the head with a corn cob. The film begins and ends with two sequences filmed in two-strip technicolor, shot at Paramount's Astoria studio. Most of the film was shot in New Martinsville, West Virginia. There's a view of the countryside with a lateral tracking shot of Swanson following Gray and Astor. A good portion of the town's population of 2341 people, per 1920 census, crowds the show boat theater featuring the boxing match between Swanson and Astor. I assume that popular demand brought Stage Struck to New Martinsville's movie theater.

Stage Struck has an original piano score composed and played by Andrew Simpson. Frederic Lombardi's commentary track is informative, with some discussion on Manhandled, the other Swanson/Dwan collaboration to also be released by Kino Classics. Even more informative are the booklet notes by longtime Coffee pal Farran Smith Nehme, covering the history of the making of Stage Struck, the film's reception and rediscovery following the restoration.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:17 AM

April 01, 2018

Coffee Break

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Dirk Bogarde in Despair (Rainer Werner Fassbinder - 1978)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:09 AM