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July 23, 2019

Luminous Motion

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production still by Nan Goldin

Bette Gordon - 1998
Kino Lorber BD Region A

It takes a few seconds to make sense of one of the images. A close-up of a map, but the various connecting roads are a thick red, almost a network of veins. This image that suggests human geography is echoed later when we see the young boy, Phillip, sleeping with an open anatomy book partially exposed under his pillow. Throughout Luminous Motion is the repetition of patterns and colors, as well as the doubling of the three family members with what might be described as their distorted twins.

There is deliberate ambiguity beginning with the first person narration. We see Phillip as a small, ten year old boy. The language of the narration appears to be that of an adult looking at the past, with certain choices in the vocabulary that would seem appropriate for an adult, yet the voice we hear is that of the child. That narrative voice is one of several devices Bette Gordon uses to disorient the viewer.

Phillip lives an itinerant life with his mother who supports the two of them with what Tennessee Williams referred to as the kindness of strangers. The two seem to be running away from Phillip's father, with no particular destination. Phillip is introduced reading a children's science book, and while quite bright and perhaps too sophisticated for his own good, eventually reveals an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. No matter where Philip and his mother go, his father seems to know how and when to call Phillip. And while Phillip has this unwavering belief in constantly being on the move, his mother makes a couple of attempts at something resembling domesticity.

Luminous Motion is one of three films that Gordon did not write, but that share in varying degrees similar thematic concerns. The other two films would be Handsome Harry (2009) and The Drowning (2016). While not exact, what these films have in common are traumatic incidents that took place in the past, failed father-son relationships, and males establishing their territory in the form of relationships with other males and women. Phillip has an outsized image of himself as the only one capable of taking care of his mother, even going as far a getting a fake driver's license, totally unaware that his small height and youth make him look silly. Phillip's attempts at control only cause more havoc. Phillip sees two men in his mother's life, his father and a hardware store owner, Pedro, both as temporary father figures and as rivals. The actions Phillip takes to re-establish his position as the primary male in his mother's life may or may not have happened, even Phillip is not certain.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by Gordon and her cinematographer, Teodoro Maniaci. Aside from discussing how certain shots were accomplished, the commentary may prove educational for novices in low-budget independent filmmaking. Supplements also include illustrated pages from the script, some story boards, and production stills by Nan Goldin. In addition to young Eric Lloyd meeting the challenge of a convincing performance as Phillip, Luminous Motion is one of the few films since David Cronenberg's Crash that made use of Deborah Kara Unger's talents. Wearing a cheap looking fake leopard skin coat and haphazardly dyed and combed blonde hair, thirteen year old Paz de la Huerta uncannily seems to have set the template for her future film roles.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:07 AM

July 19, 2019

Death Takes a Holiday

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Mitchell Leisen - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I have a vague memory that takes place in the early Sixties. Reading the listings of movies shown on television, I came across the title, Death Takes a Holiday. I'm a bit puzzled by what this means. My mother gave be a brief explanation. The movie was shown at a time when I wasn't able to watch it. And somehow this film that has piqued my curiosity never seems to have reappeared either on television or at any of the many venues in New York City showing older films in the early Seventies. I can't really explain why I didn't bother getting getting the DVD when it was a bonus included with Martin Brest's remake, Meet Joe Black, a film I actually liked quite a bit. (Disclosure - I was acquainted with Martin Brest at NYU and made a student movie with him.)

Mitchell Leisen's second directorial effort is now a standalone blu-ray. In reviewing Leisen's filmography, the suits at Paramount were quite patient with Leisen as his early films generally got good reviews, but were financially uneven. Leisen would hit his stride about two years and several films later once he teams up with charismatic actors like Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, Don Ameche and his most frequent star, Fred MacMurray, combined at best with screenplays by Preston Sturges or the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Death Takes a Holiday originally was a an Italian play, later performed in an English language version on Broadway. Leisen's graceful traveling camera cannot totally transcend the portentous dialogue.

Most of the film takes place in a large villa, in the Paramount studio version of Italy, marginally less elaborate than the exotic locations of fellow studio directors Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch. Death is first seen as a blobby shadow following several aristocratic celebrants speeding on a mountain pass in their elongated roadsters. Making an appearance late at night, Death shows up again at the villa in the form of a tall man draped in black cloth, partially transparent. He reveals to the villa's owner, Duke Lambert, his identity, plus his request to appear in human form as a guest for three days. Death wants to know why he is feared. Suspension of disbelief is required here. Not because I have a problem with Death appearing in the form of Fredric March, Brad Pitt, or the chess playing Bengt Ekerot, but because I figure that Death has been around long enough to have a clue or two about human behavior. Death reappears as the Duke's friend, Prince Sirki, complete with monocle and an East European accent, to learn about life from the leisure class, where men wear tuxedos and the women wear tiaras.

During the three days, people miraculously survive ship sinkings, school burnings, getting trampled by horses, and other disasters. Death questions the futility of existence, which is pretty easy to do when your with people who do nothing but race boats, play ping pong, or visit exclusive casinos. Death is attracted to Grazia, first scene praying at a church, meeting her would-be fiance, Corrado, son of the duke.

Fredric March plays Death as an alien being whose speaking and mannerisms become less stilted and more fluid over the course of the three days. Evelyn Venable, was Paramount's ingenue at the time, seen here as Grazia. Venable has a passing resemblance to Olivia De Havilland, but she lacked that sparkle needed for more more than brief stardom, and I got the sense, especially in Venable's close-ups that Mitchell Leisen was looking for De Havilland, but may not have known it at the time.

There is one nice shot of March and Venable sitting together by a fountain pool, seen upside down in reflection. The camera tilts up to the two sitting together, Death has only an hour left as a guest in the villa and wants to spend that last hour with Grazia. Death Takes a Holiday was produced before the Production Code took effect, but what happens in that last hour is never shown, nor stated.

Where the code was challenged all involve actress Gail Patrick, uttering an inaudible "damn", trying to seduce Prince Sirki by informing him of her flexibility regarding the need to get married, and sharing a bed with another female guest.

Leisen got start working for Cecil B. DeMille, and the interior of the villa looks like a DeMille set moved indoors, with huge classical statues in the hallways and oversized Renaissance paintings on the walls. There is a traveling shot, with the camera moving backwards as the guests enter the villa, walking through that very long entry way.

Kat Ellinger's commentary offers some information on the production of Death Takes a Holiday, but I was hoping for something on how much of the screenplay was the work of the two credited writers, Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman. I'm guessing that most of the declamatory scenes were by Anderson. Ellinger takes time to discuss the theatrical origins of Death Takes a Holiday, as well as reviewing the careers of several of the stars and production team.

There may be a little bit of irony that when I finally get to see Death Takes a Holiday, it's a time when I've been dealing with my own mortality. No fear of dying, but if Death comes to meet me in human form, I'm hoping she resembles Tiffany Haddish.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:33 AM

July 16, 2019

Hold Back the Dawn

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Mitchell Leisen - 1941
Arrow Films BD Region A

The past - did novelist Anna Seghers see Hold Back the Dawn sometime prior to writing Transit? Was she familiar with Ketti Frings' screen treatment? Both Seghers' novel and Leisen's film are about refugees, told in the first person. The narrator is of questionable background, telling his story to a vaguely known acquaintance. Both narrators are waiting for the documents that will allow them to travel, and both use fraudulent means, involving a woman, to accomplish their goal. Both men stay at a crowded, run-down hotel with other refugees. The routine is overwhelmingly tedious. In both the novel and the film, a refugee frustrated by bureaucracy hangs himself. Hold Back the Dawn takes place in a small border town in Mexico, directly across from the United States. Hitler was considered Europe's problem, and the U.S. government maintained a strict limit on immigration. Transit takes place in Marseilles in 1942, at a time when refugees were hobbled by time-limited travel visas, and the hope of going to Mexico or Brazil, should a ship be available. Both Dawn co-writer Billy Wilder and Anna Seghers, as well as Frings' husband, spent time in Mexico before getting approval to live in the United States. Anna Segher's 1939 novel, The Seventh Cross was made into a movie by MGM that came out in the same year that Transit was published in English. The director of that film was Fred Zinnemann. Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann were among the aspiring filmmakers who made the German People on Sunday in 1930.

The present - I don't think anyone can watch Hold Back the Dawn without thinking about current events. Even Olivia de Havilland's character isn't immune from xenophobia. Yesterday's "scum" become today's invaders. Unfortunately, no one at Homeland Security seems have that right combination of strictness and understanding as Walter Abel. It's also unavoidable to look wistfully at a film that takes place in a world where marriages of convenience aren't investigated too closely, immigrants wait patiently for legal approval, and the two times rules are circumvented are both gently comic moments.

First and foremost, Hold Back the Dawn is a Hollywood movie. It was produced at Paramount, a studio founded by Adolph Zukor. As an orphaned eighteen year old Hungarian Jew, Zukor probably showed little obvious promise of becoming a self-made millionaire even before getting into the motion picture business. Charles Boyer plays a Romanian gigolo, officially a dancer, told that due to quota restrictions, he can expect to be allowed to leave the Mexican border town for the U.S. in at least five years. His "dance partner", played by Paulette Goddard meets up by chance at the border town's Climax Bar. Boyer learns he can expedite things by getting married to a U.S. citizen, and once he receives citizenship papers he can file for divorce. Boyer encounters schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland shepherding a group of school boys for a brief visit across the border. Temporarily stranded due to a car accident, Boyer acts as a rescuer for De Havilland and her charges, sweet talking her into marriage.

The film both plays up to, and against Hollywood conventions and the on-screen personas of Boyer and De Havilland. In her booklet notes, Farran Smith Nehme describes Boyer as having a "chocolate-ganache voice". Boyer's performance as he woos De Havilland borders on self-parody, but perhaps that's partially the result of seeing too many Pepe Le Pew cartoons. It is after the two are married that Boyer fights his own impulses and screen image to make sure the marriage is unconsummated. De Havilland, Warner Brothers' resident "good girl", is first seen bouncing in anticipation in a hotel room with a wedding cake, and sheds her clothes to take a dip at a deserted beach. Boyer is the worldly conman from Romania by way of Paris, while De Havilland is proudly from small town Azusa, California. This is a film that requires surrendering to an on-screen romance of this mismatched couple.

I like, but do not love, Hold Back the Dawn. My own estimation of Mitchell Leisen is still that his best work was done between 1937 and 1941, with screenplays by Preston Sturges and the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. My own favorites are Arise, My Love, written by Brackett and Wilder, and Remember the Night, written by Sturges (and why is this film not shown on Christmas?). The two moments I will savor in Hold Back the Dawn include the previously mentioned scene of De Havilland anticipating giving up her virginity to Charles Boyer, and Walter Abel's U.S. customs agent discovering the birth of an anchor baby in his office. Farran Smith Nehme's booklet notes discuss the making of the film and the rift between Wilder and Leisen over changes in the screenplay. IMDb lists Richard Maibaum as having made uncredited contributions to the screenplay, yet neither Nehme, nor Adrian Martin in his commentary track made note of this, making that credit questionable, although Maibaum did write several credited screenplays for Leisen. Martin's commentary track, aided by an additional interview with BFI programmer Geoff Andrew, argue for Leisen's auteur status, remarking on the recurring themes in his films as well as his visual choices. Martin also refers to the Senses of Cinema survey of Mitchell Leisen by David Melville, also worth reading. This month is seeing a Leisen revival with new blu-ray discs of Easy Living and Death Takes a Holiday on the way.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:46 AM

July 12, 2019

The Tough Ones

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Roma a mano armato / Rome Armed to the Teeth
Umberto Lenzi - 1976
Grindhouse Releasing BD Regions ABC two-disc and one CD set

There's a scene in Raoul Walsh's White Heat, where the manic gangster, Cody Jarrett, has escaped from the penitentiary with a con, Parker, who had attempted to kill him, hiding him in the trunk of the getaway car. Jarrett is a sociopath, but because he's played by James Cagney, he's the kind of gangster that the audience roots for in spite of themselves. The morning after the escape, Parker is still enclosed in the car trunk. From inside the trunk, Parker tells Jarrett that it is getting stuffy inside the trunk. Jarrett shoots several bullets into the trunk, in his words, to provide ventilation for his victim. While most contemporary viewers will probably chuckle at the black humor of this scene, in its time it was considered horrifying. I thought of White Heat and Umberto Lenzi's documented admiration for Raoul Walsh while watching The Tough Ones.

In The Tough Ones, Tomas Milian plays the part of Moretto, a hunchback who has thus far hidden his criminal activity. Moretto goes to a pawnbroker, with the premise of pawning some jewelry, and offers the pawnbroker to touch his hump for good luck, as according to the superstition. The pawnbroker declines the offer. Moretto turns around with a machine gun, shooting the pawnbroker, with the comment that not touching his hump brings bad luck. It's the combination of violence and cruel sarcasm that makes the character of Moretto appear inspired by Walsh's Cody Jarrett. Lenzi also adds a propensity for Roman rhyming street slang for Morretto. Moretto's gang of bank robbers are an especially nervous bunch, equally as ready to fire their machine guns at random targets.

Whatever filament of a plot there is concerns a Roman cop, Tanzi, searching for a criminal on the run. Tanzi is portrayed by Maurizio Merli, and is typical of many of his other film appearances, is that rogue detective who disregards bureaucracy, slaps around bad guys and asks questions later, and can be counted on for a high speed car chase. To his credit, Merli also does his own stunts including the driving. Tanzi encounters a virtual catalogue of the kind of crime that took place during the time The Tough Ones was made including the previously mentioned bank robbery, kidnapping, rape, purse snatching and illegal drugs. In his commentary track, Mike Malloy states how several set pieces in The Tough Ones are to found in other Eurocrime movies. Lenzi's film helped set the template for similar films featuring the names of cities in their titles, the various narrative elements as well as star Maurizio Merli's on-screen persona.

Of the many extras, one I found of interest was an older supplement by Michele De Angelis of the late, lamented DVD label, NoShame. A personal note here - NoShame was the first company to send me screeners when I first launched this website. De Angelis positions The Tough Ones within a history of Italian narrative films that documented the social changes in Italy following World War II. That Eurocrime thrillers would have a connection to neorealism is less of a stretch when one considers the influence these films had on Hollywood film noir. De Angelis goes on to discuss the influence of films such as The French Connection and Dirty Harry on the Eurocrime genre.

The Calum Waddell produced documentary about Umberto Lenzi's career is frustrating as there is nothing about his life prior to his career as a director, and does not bother mentioning films made prior to the thrillers with Carroll Baker. While Lenzi's giallo and crime films are his best known, I encourage those unfamiliar with the early works to check out Lenzi's official debut feature, Queen of the Seas, a costume adventure film about the female pirate Mary Read, and Lenzi's version of Gunga Din, Three Sergeants of Bengal. Hollywood veteran Arthur Kennedy appears in The Tough Ones as Tanzi's supervisor. If someone wasn't familiar with Kennedy, they would think the only film of note he appeared in was Lawrence of Arabla. Aside from multiple Oscar nominations, Kennedy had roles in a handful of film noir classics, notably Too Late for Tears. It may possibly be coincidence that Kennedy had also appeared in one film each by Raoul Walsh and another director Lenzi admired, Samuel Fuller.

It's the first supplement on the second disc, titled "Umberto", that I would consider required viewing. Umberto Lenzi talks about his life and career for almost an hour. In addition to Walsh and Fuller, Lenzi also names Otto Preminger and Robert Siodmak as part of the four most influential directors. Three of the four have directed key films in the history of film noir, with Fuller making a contribution as a screenwriter. The Fuller connection is more obvious in Lenzi's use of social commentary and also with the war films that Lenzi describes as being his most personal work. Several other film noir filmmakers are also cited, including Edward Dmytryk and that director's masterpiece, Christ in Concrete. There are also some brief clips from Lenzi's first film, made in Greece, Mia Italida stin Ellada. Lenzi is forgiven exaggerating is memory of working as an assistant on Raw Wind in Eden. The only person whose career really suffered from that film's failure was star Esther Williams. Lenzi offers a first-hand account of film production practices in Italy when genre films were imported around the world.

Additional information of genre production practices, as well as more specific information on the making of The Tough Ones is in the interview with screenwriter Dardano Sachetti. Supporting player Corrado Solari offers several humorous anecdotes. The still beautiful Maria Rosaria Omaggio talks about making her film debut under Lenzi's direction. There is also an hour and a half interview with Tomas Milian which includes discussing his time with the Actors Studio. In all, be prepared to set aside several hours on the supplements. And if an interview with composer Franco Micalizzi isn't enough, there is also the enclosed CD with the soundtrack.

As for information regarding the making of The Tough Ones, Lenzi recounts how he filmed the car chases on the street, in real traffic. The additional secret sauce is that Lenzi would have the camera run at 22 frames per second, heightening the sense of speed when projected at the normal 24 fps. A conversation with composer Franco Micalizzi offers more information on their several collaborations. Film historian Roberto Curti's booklet notes provide context regarding the real life inspirations for several scenes, as well as some background on the production of the film. Umberto Lenzi had an interest in history, as well as film history. It would seem in light of much of the material included with The Tough Ones that Lenzi understood that as a genre filmmaker, much like those directors he admired, that his work would receive greater appreciation by future film fans and scholars.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:02 AM

July 02, 2019

Transit

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Christian Petzold - 2018
Music Box Films

Would I have thought differently about Transit had I not read Anna Segher's novel beforehand? The novel was published in 1944, taking place in Marseilles between late 1940 and early 1941 before the complete Nazi takeover, when refugees with the right papers and money could leave France for the U.S., Mexico or other South American countries. Seghers was also a refugee, taking inspiration from her own time in Marseilles. The narrative is primarily done in the first person by a young man, an escapee from a concentration camp, who has been given the suitcase and letters of an author who is revealed later to be dead. The unnamed narrator takes over the identity of the author in order to leave Marseilles, trying to work his way with the various bureaucracies to make his arrangements. A mysterious woman turns out to be the author's wife. The characters are ill-fated, whether by their own choices or circumstances beyond their control.

Petzold has transposed the story to the present era. The timeline has been collapsed, sub-plots jettisoned along with several characters. While loosely adapting Carnival of Souls for Yella, and The Postman Always Rings Twice for Jerichow worked, the time and place did not have to be specific. In Petzold's Transit, while we see the occasional roundup of "undesirables", there is no sense of a palpable threat by the group given the vague identity of fascists. Segher's novel also takes place over a period of several months with a stress on the boredom of waiting for papers to get approved, for trying to stay warm in what seems like a never ending winter, where the pizza that comprises the main diet is purchased as rationed bread. Petzold's changes include a young boy, half German/half North African, and his deaf-mute mother, also illegal aliens, as an attempt to make the updated version more timely. At the same time, Petzold has deracinated Segher's version which significantly included several Jewish characters. Ending the film with Talking Head's song, "Road to Nowhere" struck me as irresponsibly flippant.

While taking place in a contemporary Marseilles, some obvious indicators or timeliness are absent, such as cell phones and computers. I understand Petzold making a connection with the various refugee crises taking place in Europe. With the rise of nationalism that has taken place, Petzold virtually anticipated what has happened recently in Italy with the recently installed right-wing government punishing those who assist the would-be migrants from North Africa. Those aspects from Seghers novel that make it universal, still read and discussed, may not be lost, yet feel diminished in the film. The darkness and desperation of Segher's novel has been replaced by sunshine and casual inconvenience.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:31 AM