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May 23, 2019

Avengement

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Jesse V. Johnson - 2019
Samuel Goldwyn Films

It's not a word that is commonly used, but the best definition I found for avengement is "the inflicting of retributive punishment". That reasonably sums up the bulk of what happens in the hour and a half of this newest collaboration of producer and star Scott Adkins and writer-director Jesse V. Johnson. I've only seen Adkins in a handful of films, primarily as a supporting performer, using his martial arts skill. Especially unlike the mainstream productions, whether made for English language or Chinese language viewers, this new film is markedly more brutal.

In addition to the expected kicks and punches, are stabbings, shotgun shootings, multiple broken bones and dental emergencies. Adkins plays a low-level criminal who does staged fighting matches on the side. His failure to throw a fight puts him in debt to a criminal gang led by his older brother. Sent to what is described as the worst of all prisons after being framed, Adkins basically is required to kill or serious maim an army of fellow prisoners who have been offered a reward for his murder. The fights are initially acts of self-defense but Adkins gets his prison sentence extended by several years. Out of prison to see his dying mother, Adkins escapes from the police and takes his revenge.

The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks, with Adkins making his final confrontation in a bar, telling the local gang members about his life in prison. Adkins is barely recognizable with his hair reduced to a buzz cut, facial hair, scars across one eye and his cheek, and metal dentures in his mouth. I have to give Adkins credit as there are not too many action stars who are willing to make themselves look ugly or anti-heroic. I was also unprepared for the pronounced accents of the cast, forgetting that Scott Adkins is British, as is Jesse V. Johnson.

This is a film designed primarily for visceral appeal. Visually, Avengement is functional, with the fight scenes logically shot and edited, making sense of the space where the scenes take place. Johnson does miss an opportunity to be more visually inventive in a scene that takes place in a make-shift club, with blue and purple lights, and moving spotlights. Maybe Johnson and Adkins were afraid of being "arty" but I was hoping they would do the equivalent in a martial arts film as someone like Gaspar Noe and others have done for scenes of dancing.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:51 AM

May 21, 2019

Robbery

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Peter Yates - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about The Man who Haunted Himself, I've been watching the old British television series, "The Saint". One of the first episodes where a car chase through London was prominently featured was directed by Peter Yates. I don't know how directorial assignments were allocated but Yates did seem to get at least one more opportunity to film a car chase as part of the the seven episodes he helmed. While the information available does not go into further detail, articles about Yates also mention that he spent some time in the 1960s as a manager for race car champion Stirling Moss, as well as being a race car driver as well.

While the car chase at the beginning of Robbery deserves acclaim, the opening set-up is notable as well. The term "Hitchcockian" has been bandied about pretty much casually, and usually by people who act as if Hitchcock's career more or less began and ended with Psycho. The scene is a good illustration of Hitchcock's explanation of the difference between suspense and surprise. An apparently wealthy man and his chauffeur leave the car parked on the street. Another man is able to get into the car long enough to plant some kind of device with timer. We don't know what kind of device this is exactly. But we follow the car with device and the men who are following that car. Yates cuts between the followers, the followed, and the timer, and wristwatches. The suspense comes from both not knowing when the device will go off, and what kind of damage will occur.

Those first eleven minutes also alternate with overhead crane shots indicating the position of cars and their respective locations, and cramped interior shots within the respective cars while they are traveling. The fabled car chase lasts about six minutes, with the focus shifting to the pursuit by police cars of a trio of criminals. Most of the shots are briefer in length, with a notable exception being a shot taken from inside the criminal gangs car, driving past a policeman, and getting the windshield window smashed in the process. It is only near the end of the chase, when a group of school children are nearly hit, that the images become a visual jumble, a quick montage of confusion. With a bigger budget, Yates was able to build on this for Bullitt made the following year, which in turn inspired William Friedkin's The French Connection.

The robbery of the title was inspired by "The Great Train Robbery" that took place in Britain in 1963. The characters are fictional. The staging of the robbery was taken from official records. Approximately 2.6 million British pounds in cash, was taken, roughly 7 million U.S. dollars at that time. Most of the film is about the cops and criminals. The only characters who are given a domestic life are the gang leader, Paul Clifton, and a former banker enlisted in the heist, Robinson. Clifton gives advance notice to his wife that he may not return home after the robbery. Robinson's insistence on contacting his wife is his undoing.

Stanley Baker, at the time a major British star notable for his tough guy roles, plays Clifton. At the time Clifton states that he refuses to be imprisoned again, Clifton appeared for me as an extension of the character Baker played in The Criminal (1960), albeit one who is a bit more polished. Even though Baker was also the producer, his performance here is almost as part of an ensemble. This is especially marked in a scene where the leading gang members meet during a soccer game. They are filmed primarily as a group conversing with each other during the game, with Baker in the back, given minimal visual emphasis. Of the cast, the only others with name recognition are character actor Frank Finlay as Robinson, and Barry Foster, better known for his turn in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy.

Nick Pinkerton's commentary track provides details on the cars used in the film's opening, the various locations, and discussions on Yates, Baker and other cast member, as well as cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, editor Reginald Beck, and film score composer Johnny Keating. While I do agree with the assessment of Peter Yates as being inconsistent, especially in the latter part of his career, I think there is more to appreciate than Robbery, Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. While Breaking Away was their only critical and commercial success of three films, Yates' collaboration with playwright Steve Tesich is worthy of more serious exploration.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:32 AM

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.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:00 AM

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.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:32 AM

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.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:15 AM