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September 28, 2021

Vera Cruz

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Robert Aldrich - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I wrote about Vera Cruz a little over four years ago. While there will be some repeating of some of my thoughts on the film, there will also be notes on what this new blu-ray version offers.

Much of the contemporary appreciation for Vera Cruz rests on the film's reputation as an influence on Sergio Leone's westerns. The assessment short changes the film as one of the templates for some of Leone's peers. Aside from Burt Lancaster's stylish anti-hero, there is the setting in Mexico during a time of political upheaval, a German military advisor to the main villain, and critiques of colonialism and/or capitalism. All or some of these elements are found in films by Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, and Carlo Lizzani, among others. Leone was the one who fulfilled his ambition by working with Aldrich on Sodom and Gomorrah, only to find himself disillusioned by his former filmmaking idol.

It is worth noting that the influence of Vera Cruz took place almost a decade later with films primarily shot in Spain, often starring expatriate actors. Aldrich's film marks itself as being a transitional western with the casting of Gary Cooper against Burt Lancaster, not simply stars of different eras and different acting styles, but also with screen personas representing contrasting moral codes. As Henry King discovered when he directed the silent The Winning of Barbara Worth, Gary Cooper underplayed his acting, the camera conveying inner thought and stoicism. Against Cooper's stillness is Lancaster's live wire, emotions on the surface. Much of his performance not only in his physicality, but his smile with those 500 gleaming teeth, two rows rightly called choppers, ready to bite down like a hungry wolf.

Visually, the film very much belongs to Aldrich. High angle, low angle and overhead shots. With Vera Cruz, Aldrich had the budget, time and full confidence to make a film his way with cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, even while forced to compromise on the characterizations at the request of his two stars. Much of the time, the two stars as well as Denise Darcel and Sarita Montiel are filmed in two-shots allowing for immediate comparison of facial expressions. The way the main characters are filmed unites them visually within the same space even when their individual motivations are in conflict. Contemporary filmmakers could also learn from Aldrich on how to film an action packed story with a couple of sub-plots within a running time slight more that ninety minutes.

Filmmaker and historian Alex Cox provides the commentary track. Always well researched, much of the information may be familiar based on previous examinations of the careers of Robert Aldrich and Sergio Leone. The one revelation is that Cary Grant was offered the role taken by Gary Cooper. Cox also points out the various Mexican locations where the film was shot. While Cox does point out the better known henchmen of Lancaster's gang - Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and the former Charles Buchinsky, he gives short shrift to Archie Savage. The former dancer associated with Katherine Dunham plays a former Union soldier, still wearing his blue uniform jacket. As Ballard, Savage was, to the best of my knowledge, one of the first black actors to have an active role in a Hollywood western, that is not a western made for black audiences, nor as a comic role. Savage's dancing skills are on display in two scenes, but he is also filmed as a man of action, facing the rest of the gang in defense of Sarita Montiel. There is no information regarding the source for the new blu-ray, but the visual flaws from the MGM blu-ray have been corrected. It is amazing to know that the film was critically lambasted at the time of release, mostly having to do with Lancaster's anti-hero showing no redeeming qualities. Bosley Crowthers in the New York Times opined, "Vera Cruz, to put it bluntly, is pretty atrocious film, loaded with meaningless violence and standard horse opera clichés." Aldrich's film has aged quite nicely as the inspiration for several films that followed, not only in the use of some of the previously mentioned tropes, but also the film's streak of dark humor.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:33 AM

September 21, 2021

13 Washington Square

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Melville W. Brown - 1928
Kino Classics BD Region A

Curiosity got the better of me. I had never come across the name of director Melville Brown. I had seen Jean Hersholt in a few movies, but was more familiar with him through the honorary award names after him. Prior to watching 13 Washington Square, I viewed the handful of films directed by Melville Brown that are currently available on streaming platforms. It is safe to say that unlike some relatively unknown filmmakers from the silent or early sound era, film history will not require any revision with this restoration.

13 Washington Square can be enjoyed for its own modest merits. It is an entertaining film as long as one disregards its several implausible plot points. The story takes place in New York City at a time when being a member of "High Society" was newsworthy. As remote as it is for contemporary film viewers, films from the silent era through the 30s, trickling out after World War II, had stories about a more class conscious America. Here, the wealthy Mrs. De Peyster wants to stop her son, Jack, from marrying Mary, the daughter of a grocer. Aside from her personal sense of humiliation, the public news would cause her loss of her social status. Through a series of mix-ups, Mrs. De Peyster meets Deacon Pycroft, a gentleman burglar who has plans to steal her paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.

Confusion reigns with Mrs. De Peyster, her ditzy maid Matilda, Pyecroft, Jack and his fiancé, bumping into each other in the dark De Peyster mansion. As Matilda, shows her skills at physical comedy, bug eyed, knocking over kitchen supplies. There are chuckles with Matilda and Mary accidentally covered by large white cloths, ghosts as animated white sheets being corny but still amusing. It is possible that Matilda's propensity for malapropisms would have been funnier in a sound film that as titles.

Based on those early talkies that I have seen, Melville Brown never changed his style of filmmaking. Most of his shots are static full or medium of the actors. Where there is a stylistic flourish is that he will have the camera track out of a close-up to a more revealing shot of a character or a setting. In this film, Brown has a close-up of a newspaper article mentioning Mrs. De Peyster's planned trip to Europe. The camera pulls away to show that it is Jean Hersholt as Pyecroft reading the article. There is very little written about Melville Brown although a look at his filmography suggests a downward trajectory from Universal in the silent era, to programmers for RKO, ending up primarily at Monogram. The available films also suggest that Brown was typecast as a director primarily of romantic comedies.

The commentary track is by Nora Fiore, who also writes about film online as Nitrate Diva. She goes into how the film diverges from the novel and play that provided the source material. Also helpful is the information on stars Hersholt, Alice Joyce, ZaSu Pitts and the other supporting players. Fiore was also able to dig up a bit more information on Melville Brown and his career. Having also seen the available sound films, while Behind Office Doors(1931) is of interest, I prefer the funnier Lovin' the Ladies, especially for the use of blackout lighting and sound in the opening scene. The warm music track was composed by Tom Howe. The blu-ray is sourced from a 4K restoration made from two 16mm prints tinted in sepia tone.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:21 AM

September 14, 2021

Macho Callahan

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Bernard L. Kowalski - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I am not sure who should take the credit, the director, or the cinematographer, Gerry Fisher. Whatever faults it has, Macho Callahan is, if nothing else, Bernard Kowalski's visually strongest film. There is care placed in framing the actors, whether in tight close-ups or in group shots. While I do not care much for the zoom in shots, there are the sweeping crane shots and upward tilts of the camera. Less care seems to be placed in crafting a coherent narrative where motivation is questionable at best and absent at worst.

The film takes place in 1864. The opening screen is at a Confederate prison camp, a partially destroyed stone fortress. The Confederate soldiers are grubby, battle fatigued and bored. We see a couple soldiers cooking offal from the entrails of a horse. The Union soldiers that are not locked in cells too small for confinement also bind their time in this open air prison. Kowalski cuts to a close-up of one large and greasy rat. There appears to have been good attention to period detail to make the scene look as authentic as possible. Macho Callahan is released from his confinement, punished for trying to escape, only to successfully engineer a new escape, eventually making his way to New Mexico. With Callahan out of prison, the film tentatively takes on the trappings of the revisionist Westerns that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Callahan takes revenge on the man who tricked him into enlisting in the Union army. He also shoots a man over a dispute regarding a bottle of champagne. There is a price on Callahan's head which nonetheless does not keep him out of Texas, a Confederate state at the time. It is never explained how Callahan got to be named Macho. Callahan's amorality is such that when he becomes a more sympathetic character, it is incongruous with the first half of the film. That the film has three editors listed in the credits also suggests that there was a bit of post-production tinkering prior the final release version.

David Janssen appears to have fully committed himself to being cast against type as an anti-hero. Never once seen clean-shaven, his beard his flecked with white hairs. As Callahan, Janssen looks like a man who has lived a hard life. What is shocking is to realize that Janssen was not even 40 at the time he made the film. Jean Seberg appears as a widow initially seeking revenge following the death of her husband by Callahan. As it turned out, Macho Callahan was Seberg's last Hollywood production after being victimized by disinformation from the FBI for her political activity. Also in the cast, albeit sometimes too briefly, are Lee J. Cobb, Bo Hopkins, David Carradine and Diane Ladd. Pedro Armendariz, Jr. has an unusually large supporting role as Callahan's partner-in-crime, the most sympathetic character in the film.

Alex Cox uses the term neo-Western to describe Macho Callahan in his commentary track. These would be the Westerns produced by Hollywood that upended many of the traditional tropes in a period bookended by two films by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Cox points out the Mexican locations as well as the overviews on the careers of the primary cast and crew. The lapses in the narrative are criticized as well, with what appears to be the choice of the writers to place convenience over logic. Even with its faults, Macho Callahan is one of the more interesting examples from a time when experimentation in form and content briefly brought new life to a fading genre.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:08 AM

September 10, 2021

Gunfight at Dry River


Daniel Simpson - 2021
Quiver Distribution

Is the a film genre that carries more baggage than the western? I am paraphrasing something I read recently where someone had opined that a western is a western, whether it is from John Ford or Clint Eastwood. Well into our current century, it seems that most recent westerns are running on the fumes from fifty years earlier. There have been a handful of films that tried a little harder, The Salvation and The Ballad of Lefty Brown come to mind. Even when a western does not try to deliberately recall an older film, there seems to be no escaping the past.

The title, Gunfight at Dry River, has similarities to titles of westerns from the 1950s - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Charge at Feather River, Ambush at Tomahawk Gap, etc. Titles inform the viewer that the film takes place in 1888 somewhere along the Mexico/Uniited States border. Filming was done in Spain, in the Monegros desert. It may not be Monument Valley but I am puzzled that other European westerns have not taken advantage of the distinctive mountain range in that area. Most of the action takes place in a small town that appears almost destroyed, a ruin of fallen stone buildings.

Alonzo Murrieta rides into Dry River to claim his father's house. He immediately comes across the Ryles brothers, a trio of dim-witted thugs who monitor the use of water from the town's well, and are essentially the town law enforcers. It is later revealed that the three are under the thumb of their mother, a matriarch who lives in the shadows. Murrieta may also have information about a hidden gold statue coveted by the Ryles. That sub-plot of the hidden gold may remind a couple of viewers of a certain film by Sergio Leone, with the brothers digging up graves in their persistent search.

Where Gunfight at Dry River generally succeeds is with strong visuals. The opening shots, especially, show a good sense of composition in establishing the location and in the placement of the actors within the frame. Some of the narrative elements do not seem as well thought out - Mexican peasants living in a land that shows no evidence of being arable, and in a village so remote, where do the Ryles get all those bullets they shoot willy-nilly at everyone who offends them? Simpson is British as is much of the cast, with the notable exception of Michael Moriarty as a blind Civil War veteran. I am not sure if Gunfight at Dry River could have been a better film than it is, but there is the suggestion that Daniel Simpson has visual talent in need of a strong script.

Gunfight at Dry River is available on streaming platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:26 AM

September 07, 2021

Blue Panther

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Marie-Chantal contre Dr. Kha
Claude Chabrol - 1965
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Blue Panther appeared in the middle period from 1964 through 1968 when Claude Chabrol was primarily making deliberately commercial films primarily for a French audience. With the exception of the English language The Champagne Murders, these films did not get released in the U.S. I do not think that Blue Panther would have been exportable in any event. The title character was inspired by Jacques Chazot's books, published in the 1950s. The literary Marie-Chantal is described as a snob who is also naive. From what little has been made available in English, she would seem somewhat similar to the kind of ditzy heiresses that appeared in 1930s screwball comedies, the daughters of the very wealthy totally lost outside their cocoon of extreme privilege. Chabrol's Marie-Chantal only shares the name and the penchant for dressing fashionably.

Anyone unfamiliar with Claude Chabrol's films should definitely not start here. Even those who have followed Chabrol's career from his roots as a member of France's Nouvelle Vague through his last years of well-crafted mysteries may be baffled. Blue Panther has been described as a spy spoof. In terms of genre filmmaking, perhaps for Chabrol and his co-writers, that was besides the point. The film is more lightly amusing than funny, nor strong on visceral action. The visual stylization is mostly seen in the use of mirrors and in the depiction of murder. Things and people are never what they initially appear to be. There are exploding cigarettes, a dart gun disguised as a ski pole, the globe-hopping from Switzerland to Morocco, and the fight among spies to get hold of the blue panther, a small ornamental brooch of a blue panther's head with two rubies as eyes. Chabrol essentially undermines audience expectations of the film either as genre exercise or as satire. The original French title contains a linguistic play on Dr. No with "kha" being a loosely used Thai word signifying agreement.

There is some pleasure in the film's casting for those who have had more than casual interest in French films from the 1960s extending beyond the Nouvelle Vague canon. Marie Laforet, as Marie-Chantal is probably still best known for her debut performance in Purple Noon. More familiar are the men in supporting roles - Serge Reggiani, Roger Hanin and Chabrol favorite, Charles Denner. Chabrol appears briefly as a bartender in what first appears to be an awkwardly filmed scene involving an intrusively placed plant. Brightening the proceeding is the the future Stephane Audran as a Russian spy whose scenes with Laforet are the most entertaining. As the chief villain, Akim Tamiroff seemed more menacing as Uncle Joe Grandi in Touch of Evil than here as the duplicitous Dr. Kha. The inclusion of Tamiroff may well have appealed to Chabrol simply because of the actor's several collaborations with Orson Welles.

The commentary track is by the trio of Howard Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson. What is helpful is in their pointing out how much of the verbal humor - puns, double and triple entendres, and other wordplay - is lost in the straightforward English subtitles. The film is also placed within the context of Chabrol's career at the time, as well as spy films of the time, when the genre was at its most popular. Discussion of how the conventions of the the spy film were played, as well as how the films were received by different audiences, goes into a too long detour about Joseph Losey and Modesty Blaise. The blu-ray is sourced from a 4K restoration that looks perfect.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:39 AM

September 03, 2021

We Need to do Something

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Sean King O'Grady - 2021
IFC Films

I am certain most readers here have seen the original version of The House on Haunted Hill. The house in question is a Frank Lloyd Wright design as seen in the exterior shots. Once Vincent Price and his would-be victims step inside, the film moves from the 1924 Ennis House to the interior of an 1890s Victorian mansion. A similar sleight-of-hand takes place in the initial set-up of We Need to do Something.

Most of the film takes place in a bathroom the size of a small Manhattan studio apartment. A middle-class family, father, mother, son and daughter, lock themselves in as temporary shelter from a storm, possibly a tornado. There is extremely loud thunder, rain, and power outages. The only door leads to the outside and is blocked by a fallen tree. In a fumbled attempt to assess what is going on outside, the father drops the only cell phone out of reach, outside the door. Tensions rise between the family members with their being trapped. Not only is there danger from the increasingly unhinged father, but there is also the suggestion that whatever is outside is even more dangerous.

When the film breaks from the travails of this dysfunctional family, it is with flashbacks of the daughter, Melissa, and her girlfriend, Amy. The two are linked by their mutual sense of being outsiders, united in an interest in occult rituals. There is a scene with the two in close-ups, Melissa with blood around her mouth. Melissa eventually believes that she bears responsibility for the disasters that takes place with her family. I am not familiar with Max Booth III's original story that served as the basis for the film (he also wrote the screenplay), but while it gives Melissa depth that the other characters lack, it also is arguably exploitive, as if the voyeuristic young man that Melissa and Amy chase away is a proxy for the male viewers.

There are some intentionally comic moments as well as gross-out laughs. The bumbling father successfully chases out a rattlesnake that has slithered into the bathroom. Celebrating his success, he guzzles down a bottle of mouth wash for its alcohol content.

The suggested horror of unexplained sounds from unseen sources is more effective than the creature feature horror near the end. While those gory moments are the kind of stuff that is beloved primarily by younger horror fans, it comes across as incongruous to a film that effectively works on the principle of the classic Val Lewton produced horror movies of the 1940s, where what scary existed in the imagination of the audience.

We Need to do Something is available in limited theatrical release and streaming formats.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:53 AM

September 01, 2021



Zoe Wittock - 2020
Dark Star Films

I have yet to see Julia Ducournau's Titane, but between the description of that film, and Zoe Wittock's debut feature, there might be a sub-genre of films about women whose most intimate relationships are with what are normally inanimate objects. That both are French films may possibly be coincidence.

Although such proclamations should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, the viewer is advised that the film was inspired by a true story. Jeanne, a youngish woman, lives with her mother, Margarette, in a provincial town. Clues are eventually dropped that Jeanne is shy, in some way neurodivergent, but without any kind of shortcuts of explanations or labeling. She is emotionally dependent on her mother. Jeanne's immaturity is also conveyed by her pageboy haircut. Margarette is a woman that the French would say is "of a certain age", her mode of dressing seemingly unchanged from what she wore in her twenties. Jeanne has the seasonal job of working at a small amusement park which has just added a tilt-a-whirl ride called Move-It, but which Jeanne dubs Jumbo. For the reclusive Jeanne, the job of cleaning the amusement park at night allows her to be alone with her thoughts.

The film begins with a dreamlike image. Noemi Merlant as Jeanne has her back to the camera. The lighting makes her white t-shirt appear as iridescent blue. To what extent Jeanne's relationship with Jumbo is to be taken at face value may be up to the viewer. While the film is not science-fiction, the scene of Jumbo's flashing lights when "speaking" with Jeanne made me think of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The way Wittcok frames Jumbo and its (his?) illuminated arms against the sky recalls images of space stations. As Jeanne's obsession with Jumbo becomes more intense, there are images of a dark, thick liquid that could either be oil or blood. Jeanne licking the liquid is vampiric.

The film originated from Zoe Wittock's interest in Objectophilia, sexual attraction to an inanimate object. Wittock also interviewed Erika Eiffel, a woman who had a commitment ceremony with the Eiffel Tower. Wittock is not interested in a psychological study. Jumbo is more about finding a sense of love when relationships between people are tenuous at best. Margarette keeps pushing Jeanne to have a relationship with a man when her own life is marked by a series of fleeting romances. Even when Jeanne submits to having sex with a man, it is in a detached manner. Amusement park rides are based on the premise that the passenger essentially surrenders to the machinery for a kind of heightened physical experience. The tilt-a-whirl lifts the rider up into an open air space, spinning the rider at an accelerated pace before descending gently, leaving the rider temporarily dizzy and disoriented. In Jumbo, it is the people trying to make sense of Jeanne who are the ones dizzy and disoriented. Noemi Merlant's performance deserves the description of being fearless.

Someone may need to explain to me why a film this good has been flying under the radar even after playing at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival in early 2020. After a brief theatrical US release this past February, Jumbo has quietly been available for streaming. Jumbo is now added as a special attraction for subscribers on Arrow's streaming channel beginning today.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:35 AM