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June 29, 2021

Major Dundee


Sam Peckinpah - 1965
Arrow Video BD Region A two-disc set

A critical and commercial failure at the time of release, Sam Peckinpah's third film gets a showering of love in this new boxed set. Included are both the original theatrical version, the extended version first released in 2005, hours worth of supplements, three (!) commentary tracks, a booklet with essays by several respected critics, and if that was not enough, a poster with Arrow's commissioned artwork. The supplements more fully explain the history of the making and unmaking of the film. Even Peckinpah's own estimation of Major Dundee as a would-be masterpiece is questioned by some of his champions.

A personal memory here - my first encounter with Major Dundee was a giant poster on the side of a building in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. I was thirteen and intrigued by the idea of a Civil War era western. Charlton Heston was a top star at the time, although the only film I had seen him in was El Cid. As it turned out, the Chicago run came and went, but Major Dundee never came to a theater near me. It was about five years later that I first saw the film on a small television, pan and scanned, black and white, tuned in just in time to see soldiers ambushed by some Apaches.

At the time of release, Major Dundee was viewed primarily as a big budget western with a handful of stars - the established Heston, plus the rising Richard Harris, James Coburn and Jim Hutton. In the intervening years, interest in the film is based on its part in the evolution of Peckinpah, the inclusion of several actors who over the years would be considered part of the director's stock company, and the film's representation of a genre shift that would become more obvious in the coming years with westerns that were more violent and less romantic.

For the benefit of anyone not familiar with the film, the basic story is of a Union army major in pursuit of an Apache chief who has massacred a group of civilians and kidnapped three young boys. The film takes place in the southwest, between 1864 and 1865. The understaffed Dundee enlists a goup of Confederate prisoners with the promise of possible pardons to join him. Also included are a motley group of civilians and six black soldiers. While pledging to follow Dundee into battle, the prisoners loyalty is to the Confederacy. For Dundee, these men are traitors to the United States. The film is bookended with off-screen narration by bugler Tim Ryan, whose diary provided part of the narrative thread. Something that struck me this time that I had overlooked previously was that the date the film ends is April 19th, 1865. While chasing Apaches in Mexico, Dundee and his surviving soldiers are unaware that they are crossing into a Texas that is no longer a Confederate state, or that the Civil War is over and that President Lincoln had recently been assassinated. Possibly this was not intentional, but while there is narrative closure, history suggests a more open ending.

In terms of any critical assessment of Major Dundee, anything I could say would essentially be redundant, repeating what others have said, and said much better than me. This box set is for the dedicated cinephile and the serious Sam Peckinpah fan. For the more casual viewer or those still unfamiliar with the filmmaker, I suggest seeing the 2005 restored version. Where the booklet notes and commentary tracks are in relative agreement is that the film is a well realized first half with a more problematic second half. Some of the history of the making of the film is comprised of differing information. What is consistent is that the film originated as a treatment by Harry Julian Fink that was bought by producer Jerry Bresler. Following the success of Diamond Head, Bresler was looking for another project to star Charlton Heston. Bresler originally had hoped to sign John Ford to direct. Ford was unavailable, shooting Cheyenne Autumn at the time. Bresler turned to Sam Peckinpah, based on the critical acclaim given to Ride the High Country. On his first major production, Peckinpah re-wrote the script with Oscar Saul, reshaping an incomplete treatment and shooting script into his own incomplete script. "Creative differences" hardly describes the what Bresler, Heston and Peckinpah had each envisioned. Due to contractual reasons, Peckinpah and company went to Mexico with the incomplete script. Due to changes at Columbia Pictures, the budget was cut from four and a half million dollars to three million dollars, and the shooting schedule cut by two weeks. Peckinpah went ahead to make the film he originally signed up to make, getting fired at the completion of shooting when it became impossible to film several scenes. Peckinpah was able to whittle the footage down to a version running about 160 minutes that he was happy with. Bresler cut the film down to 136 minutes - the so-called "extended version". Columbia boss Mike Frankovich approved the original theatrical release that ran slightly over two hours. Details such as how Senta Berger was cast in the shoehorned romantic scenes or how much of the film's shortcoming were the responsibility of Jerry Bresler remain subjects of dispute. An interesting footnote glossed over is that Peckinpah had completed a script for the film, The Glory Guys a fictionalized version of Custer and Little Big Horn. Directorial duties were given to Peckinpah's associate from "The Rifleman" television series, Arnold Laven. Three members of the Major Dundee cast - Berger, Slim Pickens and Michael Anderson, Jr. were once again filming Durango, Mexico.

There is information to be gleaned from each of the commentary tracks. The first is ported over from the Twilight Time release with label founder Nick Redman and three authors of books on Peckinpah - David Waddle, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor. Glenn Erickson does double duty with a solo commentary as well as a lively exchange with Alan Rode. Everyone is well prepared here. Jeremy Carr, Farran Smith Nehne and Roderick Heath provide their insights, with Ms. Smith challenging the prevailing opinion of the film as "Moby Dick on horseback". Neil Snowdon, a producer at Arrow Films, also provides an essay, and a reminder that Arrow is a company run by cinephiles. Mike Siegel has two compilations of interviews, one with members of the cast and crew of Major Dundee, and one of more general memories with actors who have worked with Peckinpah over the course of his career.

My favorite supplement is the video essay by David Cairns discussing the difference between the film Peckinpah envisioned and the theatrical release version. Cairns casts producer Bresler, who had previously produced the two theatrical Gidget sequels, as being incompatible with Peckinpah. I would contend that to be partially true as some of the deleted footage was antithetical to Bresler's taste. Also this was a time prior to the ratings systems when all films needed to be approved for a general audience. Bresler had a history of producing several films that were film noir or noirish, but the film he had in mind was a more traditional western. Where Cairn's commentary is of most interest is in discussing how Peckinpah had hoped to employ slow motion in the death scenes. Part of why The Wild Bunch succeeded where Major Dundee failed is the combination of a rating system that allowed Peckinpah to depict graphic violence and a Hollywood more open to a wider variety of editing techniques. Cairns also rightly calls out the original music score where Daniele Amfitheatrof was hired to imitate Max Steiner with inappropriately jaunty music, and Mitch Miller and his hearty male chorus sang the "Major Dundee March". This was a time when major movies were virtually required to have a title song that received heavy radio play. Whatever complaints one might have regarding the score by Christopher Caliando, it still is an improvement over the original music score. And as one who has seen all three theatrical Gidget films directed by Paul Wendkos, they have their own silly charm.

The 136 minute version of Major Dundee was made from a 4K scan. The 1965 theatrical release is from a 2K scan. Regardless of what one may think of Major Dundee and its status in the Peckinpah filmography, the packaging is impressive and could well win awards as one of the outstanding home video releases of this year. What we have ultimately is a film that reflects the artistic conflict at the time of production, between a producer whose template was the westerns of the past working with a filmmaker who was searching for new possibilities for the genre.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:29 AM

June 18, 2021

The Serpent


Gia Skova - 2021
Vertical Entertainment

The Serpent is not the kind of film I usually watch, much less write about. What caught my attention is that the film was written and directed by Gia Skova, who is also the film's star. There may be other women I am overlooking, but Skova joins the small company that includes Barbra Streisand (Yentl) and Chantal Akerman (Je Tu Il Elle. As for action filmmakers, Sylvester Stallone comes to mind for taking all three credits of writing, directing and starring in the same film. What also is striking is that Skova's professional trajectory has been as a model and actress prior to this first effort at writing and directing. Compared to some of the action films that go straight to VOD that star, for example, Scott Adkins, The Serpent is not very good. But the fact that it essential the work of one woman brings up questions regarding genre and gender.

The plot involves rogue C.I.A. agents and children who have become "bio-bombs". As best I could follow, a small group of children had microchips implanted in their brains that are connected to nuclear devices that will eliminate a large portion of the population. Skova stars as Lucinda Kavsky, a C.I.A. agent who is out to rescue the children and uncover the bad guys. Skova shoots two machine guns at once, knocks out guys with high kicks, drives and shoots at the same time, and generally performs the checklist of improbable derring do found in a dozen contemporary action films. Looking for anything that makes a lick of sense is futile.

It certainly does not help that scenes that are suppose to take place in New York City were clearly filmed in downtown Los Angeles. L.A.'s Broadway is never going to be confused for Manhattan's Park Avenue, and that shot of the marquee for the Los Angeles Theater should have been avoided. Likewise, the foothills near Los Angeles are visible in a chase scene. There are some bits of business and narrative gaps that are puzzling. The ending is abrupt, suggesting that money for the production ran out. As for dialogue, I have doubts about the head of the C.I.A. berating a failed agent as a loser and idiot within earshot of others. Whatever failures there are in writing, directing and logic, The Serpent can not be called boring.

There is an audience for a film like The Serpent, but that audience does not necessarily include me. Which is not to say that this film should be totally disregarded. Taking the longer view, even the programmers and B movies of the past take on lives of their own, the subjects of interest decades after their initial release. It is quite possible that The Serpent could be viewed with interest just as today there are books on Monogram Pictures and the output of other "Poverty Row" studios. As a filmmaker, Skova's debut comes at a time when Hollywood studios have finally decided that women are capable of making action films. It is too soon to know if The Serpent will be Skova's only shot behind the camera or if she can successfully segue into a career along the lines of directors like Jesse V. Johnson and John Hyams. At a time when exploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman gets an academic study, one learns that the trash films of yesterday and today can have the potential of being tomorrow's treasure.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:52 AM

June 08, 2021



Philippe de Broca - 1962
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I had seen Cartouche twice previously, but also decided to revisit some other films by de Broca made around the same time. A small sequence that particularly struck me is when Cartouche, dodging the law in Paris, joins the army. The film takes place during the early 18th Century period in France known as the Regence. Cartouche and his two friends are caught in a battle, hiding from the the slaughter, and being declared heroes after staggering back to the fort. The reward for the men's supposed gallantry is to be on the front line of the next battle. The battle scene and the treatment of the soldiers portray the absurdity of war, and anticipate de Broca's best known film, King of Hearts.

Cartouche was inspired by the real life highwayman, Louis Dominique Garthausen, also known as Cartouche. As played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, Cartouche is introduced as a very talented pickpocket. The various criminals of Paris are under the control of Malichot, who takes most of the loot for himself. Returning from the army, after stealing the army cashbox, Cartouche takes on Malichot. The underworld gang is transformed into an army that shares the ill-gotten gains, but also has a code of honor of only stealing from the rich. In the course of his adventures, Cartouche rescues Venus, a young woman arrested for the theft of a silk kerchief.

One of de Broca's other themes, also in other films, is the question of spiritual loss with material gain. Cartouche has wealth and the adoration of Venus. In spite of declaring himself married to Venus, Cartouche is seen flirting with another woman. His seduction of an aristocrat's wife almost brings about his end. For some of the men in de Broca's films, it takes the loss of everything to recognize the value of what they have.

Cartouche was the first of five films de Broca made with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Each film was a comic adventure pairing the star with a top actress. This may well be the best of the five in part because of it being a period film, unlike the other four which were in contemporary settings, with certain aspects aging badly. Cartouche set the pace for Belmondo not only doing very physically demanding slapstick comedy, but also horse riding, sword fighting, shooting and assorted fisticuffs. Claudia Cardinale has the star-making role as Venus, whose biggest weapon may be her broad smile flashing both rows of teeth. While Cardinale is mainly associated with Italian films, French is her first language, so I am assuming that is her voice on the soundtrack.

The blu-ray comes with a documentary on de Broca that alternates between wife Alexandra de Broca and French journalist Thomas Morales. Mme. de Broca discusses how Cartouche came about when plans to film a new version of The Three Musketeers were cancelled, and how the film was a leap for the the still relatively new director. Morales makes the point of positioning de Broca as a link between the Nouvelle Vague and the more classic style of filmmaking. I do think his dismissal of Claudia Cardinale as a serious actress is nonsensical in light of her work with Fellini, Visconti, among others. One of the more interesting points in Simon Abrams' commentary is how the reception for Cartouche in the U.S. was muted by its belated release following The Man from Rio (1964) by one month, with critics expecting another totally comic film.

Georges Delerue's music for Cartouche quite appropriately evokes music of the era, Handel comes to mind. There is one scene when Cartouche is waiting for an expected liaison with the aristocrat's wife, the woman he flirts with at the beginning of the film. The music struck me as an initial attempt at what would be more fully developed as the romantic theme for Godard's Contempt.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:51 AM

June 03, 2021

The Woman One Longs For

the woman one longs for.jpg

Die Frau, nach der man sich sehnt / Three Loves
Kurt Bernhardt - 1929
Kino Classics BD Region A

The emphasis on the blu-ray release of The Woman One Longs For is that it is a German silent film starring Marlene Dietrich made prior to her "discovery" by Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich does play the titular character, though her actual billing is below that of top-billed Fritz Kortner. Dietrich is not exactly a femme fatale here, although knowing her proves to be the undoing of two men in this story. While Dietrich has yet to be molded into the glamorous icon as established in the von Sternberg films, it is the artistry of the filmmaking that caught me off guard.

The source novel is from Max Brod, a name more familiar as the friend and biographer of Franz Kafka. The son of an industrialist, Henri, goes on a honeymoon trip by train with his wife, Angela. Henry spots Stascha looking out through the frosted window of the train he and his wife are about to board. Stascha is accompanied by an older man, heavy, with a monocle. Later on the train, Stascha implores Henri to help her as she says she is traveling with the man against her will. Henri ditches his wife to follow Stascha and the man identified as Mr. Karoff to the Grand Hotel. Bernhardt and screenwriter Ladislaus Vajda had sense enough not to pad out the film which runs at a tidy 77 minutes.

I admittedly have only seen a handful of films directed by the future Curtis Bernhardt, as he was renamed moving from Germany to Hollywood. My own initial impression of Bernhardt was that of a second-stringer, the guy Jack Warner tapped for the "women's pictures" when Michael Curtiz and Anatole Litvak were to busy, or the project was less than prestigious. There is precious little written about Bernhardt that makes it easy to dismiss him as primarily a journeyman director. It was actually an online piece on Conrad Veidt by Fiona Watson that suggested Bernhardt has another filmmaker in need of further research. Watson has written about The Man who was Murdered, and Bernhardt's use of tracking shots and dissolves. Further searching took me to a Bright Lights essay by Marc Svetov grouping Bernhardt with Robert Siodmak and Max Ophuls work in the early 1930s in Germany and France. It would appear that Curtis Bernhardt's pre-Hollywood work needs to be better known.

There is a traveling shot near the beginning, inside a cafe, that traverses the length of the cafe and back. Within the sequences that take place on the train are a couple of shots going either forward or back through the corridor of a train car. The scene taking place in the hotel on New Year's Eve begins with the close-up of a giant clock, that backing decoration for the house band, with an extended tracking shot away from the clock to reveal the celebrants in the ballroom. Bernhardt may have also been under the influence of Eisenstein with the use of quick cutting montage. A series of shots establishing a steel factory could well have been taken from Soviet propaganda, with the parts of the plant seen as a series of almost abstract images. The fist fight between Henry and Karoff is a succession of quick close- ups - a slap to the jaw, a monocle dropping to the floor, fists against chests, fists against jaws, and some tentative grappling. Dietrich is first introduced visually in the frame of the train window within the camera frame.

In her commentary track, Gaylyn Studlar points out that Marlene Dietrich was not quite a star at the time of production. She was chosen over studio objections by Bernhardt following a series of supporting roles in films made earlier in the decade. Stardom was still not quite in the grasp of the 28 year old actress, even with prominent roles here and under the direction of Maurice Tourneur. Studlar goes deepest in discussing the career of Fritz Kortner, as well as touching on the careers of Bernhardt in Hollywood, and cinematographer Curt Courant. The blu-ray also includes a score by jazz/classical musician Pascal Schumacher showing the influence of the composers of the 1920s. The blu-ray is sourced from a print restored in 2012 by the F. W. Murnau Foundation. I usually refrain from hyperbole, but The Woman One Longs For could well be one of the best classic releases of this year.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:12 AM

June 01, 2021

The Green Man

Green Man.jpg

Robert Day - 1956
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Often critical and commercial successes at the time of release, I sometimes take a look at British comedies from the 1950s up to the period before A Hard Day's Night and "Swinging London", and wonder what the fuss was about. What seemed funny at the time of production might evoke a small chuckle but most likely falls flat. The exception would be those comedies from the production/writing team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. As a team, they may be best known for the series of St. Trinian's films, about anarchic school girls running amuck, with Alastair Sim as both the headmistress and her twin brother in the first of those films. Sim would star in several films from Launder and Gilliat. The Green Man had directorial duties handed over to Robert Day and an uncredited Basil Dearden, but still has more in common with the other films of the production team.

Sim appears here as a paid assassin, Hawkins, known for his bomb making skills. His plot to murder the statesman, Sir Gregory, is interrupted initially by the secretary who suspects that her would-be fiance may be up to no good. This is followed by an ernest door-to-door salesman. William Blake (yes, really) who shows up at the wrong house, getting that home's owner, Ann, involved. What follow is a comedy of errors that involves Hawkins trying to hide his activities, and his inept assistant trying to hide a dead body. There is frenetic activity with several people running between the two houses and up and down staircases, followed by a clue that leads Blake and Ann to an out of the way seaside inn called The Green Man.

What I think makes the difference is that Launder and Gilliat do not simply put their characters into funny situations, but there is a sympathy for their respective foibles. Even in an extreme case like Hawkins, Launder and Gilliat delight in characters that upend the social order. Hawkins makes a point of only assassinating the bullies on the world stage, dictators and self-serving captains of industry. Even the minor characters are affectionately presented, including a chamber trio of middle-aged women who energetically attack Brahms' "Hungarian Dance", and Sir Gregory's secretary, nervous about what's suppose to be a secret rendezvous with her boss. Although prominently billed, Terry-Thomas appears when the action shifts to the Green Man. T-T has been having an affair with the hotel desk clerk. And while it really has nothing to do with the main narrative, it is that inimitable enunciation and cheerful shamelessness, prime T-T, that adds to the humor. Even British life gets a couple poking with jokes at the expense of the BBC and what passes for British cuisine.

David Del Valle's commentary primarily stresses the career of Alastair Sims and Sims' work with Launder and Gilliat. There is also a brief overview of British cinema in the 1950s, especially the comedies of the time. Del Valle also explains the somewhat convoluted history of how Robert Day, previously a cinematographer, made his directorial debut under the supervision of Basil Dearden. While Day had a prolific career in film and television, very little has been of critical note. Basil Dearden has had the more noteworthy filmography, but his own comedies are more low-key. In a roundabout way, The Green Man is revisited in Dearden's penultimate The Assassination Bureau.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:06 AM