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March 29, 2022

Shakedown

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Joe Pevney - 1950
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

One of the couple of virtues to Joseph Pevney's debut feature is that it cuts to the chase immediately. No padding with introductory exposition. Howard Duff is chased by three thugs in a railroad yard. Duff hides his camera near the underside of a train and then continues to run. The thugs catch up with him. Duff has tossed his camera case into the bay which the thugs do not realize is empty. After being punched several times, Duff is left sprawled on the rail tracks with barely enough strength to drag himself away from an oncoming train.

Shakedown has a running time of eighty minutes, and a cast of Universal contract players and stars who found more work in television. The film was probably made primarily to serve as a second feature in urban theaters or as something for smaller theaters to run at a time when a movie might be given an engagement of two or three days. The cast is made up of recognizable names with actors who's careers either saw a descent in the case of Brian Donlevy, or who had plateaued to a certain level, which had happened wth Duff, Lawrence Tierney and Bruce Bennett. Actress Peggy Dow retired from acting within a couple of years while Anne Vernon returned to a long, rewarding career primarily in her native France. Universal cut some financial corners by recycling excerpts from the scores of previous releases. There is also a blink or you will miss it appearance by an uncredited Rock Hudson. Peggy Dow noted in an interview that she also had to supply her own wardrobe. The studio did have enough confidence in Pevney to allow for some location shooting in San Francisco that is thankfully devoid of tourist eye establishing shots save for a brief pan of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Duff, as Jack Early, recovers his camera and uses in an incriminating photograph as his calling card to get on the staff of a newspaper. He convinces photo editor Ellen Bennett and editor David Glover to allow him to work provisionally when Early manages to take a photo of a man who drove his car off a pier. Early wants to be a professional photographer in the worst way possible. After talking a camera shy reputed gangster into posing for him, Early starts scheming ways to use his photos to blackmail the gangster and his rival. In addition to his desire for money and celebrity, Early sees himself as a lady's man, forcing his attentions on Ellen and Nita, the wife of the gangster with the respectable front. Without belaboring the point, Early has a sharp sense of perspective behind the camera, but not in terms of looking at himself.

Jason Ney's commentary track compares Jack Early to the legendary Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, using quotes from Fellig's autobiography. The big difference is that Fellig may have used devious methods at time to get his shots, but he also had a sense of ethics that Early lacks. Also in connecting Shakedown to the film noir canon, Ney points out that co-screenwriter wrote the original story for Detour as well as having a hand in The Narrow Margin. Ney also relays how Joseph Pevney was able to move from being one of Universal's contract supporting players to being given the chance to direct, with a modestly budgeted film that represented a small gamble on the part of the studio. Pevney's direction might be best described as functional. For those who grew up watching movies, sometimes indiscriminately, on late night broadcast television, Shakedown is the kind of film that might appear after midnight, with commercial interruptions, still fitting perfectly into a ninety minute slot.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:02 AM

March 24, 2022

Farewell

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Abschied
Robert Siodmak - 1930
Kino Classics BD Region A

The full title is the unwieldy Abschied - Ernstes und Heiteres aus einer Familienpension. The Google translation is "Farewell - serious and cheerful from a family pension", the pension in this case being a boarding house where the film takes place.

Farewell has forced me to consider that Robert Siodmak still is, as Andrew Sarris might put it, a subject for further research. Most discussion about the director is centered on a dozen American films made between 1944 (Phantom Lady) and 1950 (Deported). That's twelve films in a filmography that lists sixty-two directorial credits per IMDb. Until recently, the only available pre-Hollywood film available was People on Sunday, a collaborative effort. Siodmak's last theatrical film to get significant distribution, Custer of the West was a job for hire, but might also need reconsideration in light of Siodmak's two films prior being adaptations of novels by Karl May, the popular author of an imagined American west beloved by Germans.

If for no other reason, Farewell is of interest as Siodmak's first solo work as a director. The screenplay is an early credit for Emeric Pressburger several years before his more famous collaborations with Michael Powell. The other screen writer, Irma von Cube, worked primarily with Anatole Litvak in his German period. This was the third film for cinematographer Eugen Shufftan who later was rewarded with an Oscar for his work on The Hustler. It should be of little surprise that all four left Germany between 1933 and 1936.

Unlike People on Sunday, Farewell takes place entirely indoors, in the hallway of a boarding house, and in a couple of the boarders' rooms. Peter and Hella are a couple who, if not formally engaged, seem to have an understanding. Their relationship is strained by the news that Peter has been offered a good paying job that requires his leaving Berlin, as well as his suspicions about Hella's fidelity. While Peter and Hella's relationship provides the main drama, the film is more of an ensemble piece with various residents popping in and out of doors. One of the various strands involves the perpetually broke "Baron" played by character actor Vladimir Sokoloff, scheming even for pennies. Also there is composer Erwin Bootz, as a version of himself, noodling on the piano, providing a soundtrack that appears to be diegetic throughout the film.

The German film industry had been working on sound with films and had their own successful system in place by 1929. Siodmak plays with offscreen shouting, the roar of a vacuum cleaner, and the aforementioned piano music. As Anthony Slide points out in his commentary track, naturalism has replaced expressionism, and Siodmak employs a different type of visual stylization. Some of the shots are arranged to force the viewer to observe more than one focal point going from front to back. This is first noticeable in the shot of the hallway with boarders looking out of their respective doors. Later, in a medium shot of a group of boarders, the face of the landlady breaks into the frame from the right as a close-up. That the shooting schedule was reportedly just twelve days and was under the direction of a relative novice suggests that the production company UFA may have viewed Farewell as a low risk test of their new technology.

The blu-ray was sourced from the 2014 digital restoration. Included is the second, tacked on ending, added a year after the initial release, which was done without the consent of the director.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:55 AM

March 21, 2022

To Sleep so as to Dream

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Yumemiru y┼Źni nemuritai
Kaizo Hayashi - 1986
Arrow Video BD Region A

In the interest of transparency, I should mention that I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the restoration of this film. That said, that is the extent of any financial connection I have which was totally independent of Arrow Video.

If Kaizo Hayashi has any kind of name recognition, it would be for his mid 1990s trilogy of detective Maiku Hama. Beyond the phonetic play on Mike Hammer, are the stories of a young admirer of the classic hard-boiled crime dramas, with a home and office tucked near the projection booth of a rundown movie palace in Tokyo. One of the films in the trilogy is titled Stairway to the Distant Past. Hayashi loves old movies, especially old Japanese movies, and his debut feature is his love letter.

The film is immediately retro by not only taking place in the early 1930s, but by being a silent film, made to look like the films of that era. Unlike the United States and western Europe, silent films were still the standard up until about 1934, with the last films produced as late as 1938. The film within the film, featuring a ninja action hero known as the Black Mask, looks like something pulled from the vaults of a film archive. The title of that film is The Eternal Mystery. An elderly woman, Madame Cherryblossom, hires young detective Uotsuka to find her missing daughter, Bellflower. To get into greater detail is almost impossible as the film drifts seamlessly between the search for the daughter and various digressions, detours and fantasies.

The film takes place where time and place are not fully tethered to reality. Uotsuka and his assistant, Kobashi, travel in a tiny car from a later era, and listen to recording from the kidnappers on a small reel-to-reel deck. One could say that the film takes place in an imagined Tokyo that finally ends with the destruction of conventional notions of time and place all merging together.

Hayashi even has a very real connection to Japan's silent era with Fujiko Fukamizu as Madame Cherryblossom. At age 16, Ms. Fukumizu was a silent film star beginning in 1932. She retired from acting in 1941. Hayashi was able to get her back on screen forty-five years later. Initially, Hayashi wanted to cast another retired screen icon, Setsuko Hara.

Having two commentary tracks helps place To Sleep so as to Dream within the context of Hayashi's career, the film's place in both Japanese film history and the references to the silent era, and making some kind of sense of the more fantastic elements of the narrative. The first commentary is by Hayashi with his star, Shiro Sana. Part of it is a casual recollection of how the two men both had early careers in experimental theater before Hayashi was able to raise money and attract talent to make his low budget debut feature. The film was shot in 16mm. Having an experienced cinematographer, it is amazing to know that most of the film was composed of single takes with very little excised for the final cut. Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, specialists in Japanese film history, discuss Hayashi's career and point out how the film within the film, The Eternal Mystery, resembles something shot by the action film pioneer, Daisuke Ito. Also included is a booklet with the director's statement and an essay by film historian Aaron Gerow.

Most delightful of all is the inclusion of an interview with benshi Midori Sawato. Essentially part of the presentation of silent films in Japan and celebrities in their own right, Sawato has been active since 1973. Her teacher, Shunsui Matsuda, who appears as a benshi in To Sleep so as to Dream was instrumental in salvaging many silent era films that were discarded. An additional supplement features Sawato performing as a benshi on a scene from The Eternal Mystery.

The blu-ray is sourced from the 2K restoration which positively glows.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:34 AM

March 15, 2022

Alain Resnais: Five Short Films

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Alain Resnais

Le Chant du Styrene - 1957
Paul Gauguin - 1949
Guernica - 1949
Toute la Memoire du Monde - 1956
Van Gogh - 1948
Icarus Films BD Region A

What links these five shorts is that they were also produced by Pierre Braunberger. It was Braunberger who encouraged the novice filmmaker, then in his early 20s to consider becoming a director, handing several commissioned projects. As a producer, Braunberger's name should be familiar as the person who helped launch the "Nouvelle Vague", financing early short films by Truffaut and Godard. The booklet that comes with the blu-ray features an interview with Braunberger's daughter, Laurence.

Those familiar with Resnais' features from his first decade and half would find it fitting that one of the films here is titled (in English) as All the World's Memories. Unlike the real or imagined memories of the dramatic features, this is a documentary about the National Library of France. Even so, Resnais begins with a visual memory of Citizen Kane before getting down to business. The short opens with a microphone dangling from a boom, dipping down from the top of the frame, similar to the opening shot of the Citizen Kane trailer. This is followed by a series of traveling overhead shots of piles of manuscripts, books crowded on shelves, and an uncountable number of boxes, reminders of the camera taking inventory in Kane's Xanadu. Resnais' playfulness with his subject matter has him remind the viewer that the library not only collects every literary book published in France, but comic books as well with a glance at favorites, "Mandrake the Magician" and "Dick Tracy".

The shorts on impressionist painters Paul Gaugin and Vincent Van Gogh are both biographical portraits using only their respective artwork. Seen almost back to back, what struck me is how the two friends and rivals seemed to influence each others work in the way some of the faces were painted. Van Gogh also won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject in 1950.

The direction of Guernica is co-credited to Robert Hessens, also credited for his writing contributions on Van Gogh. The actual painting is never seen in full, but is presented in fragments, along with other paintings and sculptures by Picasso, while actress Maria Casares reads a poem by Paul Eluard, "The Victory of Guernica".

For those unfamiliar with French, the Le Chant du Styrene is a pun on the word styrene, in English, siren. Having read a couple of his novels, I am assuming this little joke was by the film's writer, Raymond Queueau, most famous for his novel, Zazie. What is suppose to be an industrial documentary on the history of plastic begins with various molded colored utensils springing to life. These look like images from a science-fiction movie, something finally realized with Je t'aime, je t'aime almost a decade later.

Of additional interest here are some of the collaborators to these shorts in addition to Casares and Queneau. Composers include Darius Milhaud, Georges Delarue and Maurice Jarre. Cinematographers include Sacha Vierny and Ghislain Cloquet. Le Chant du Styrene was Resnais' last short before making his feature debut with Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Even though that film coincidentally was released at about the same time as the Nouvelle Vague films first appeared, Resnais was a decade older with over twenty short films completed by that time. The restoration and availability of these five early works is certainly welcomed.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:00 AM

March 09, 2022

The Devil Strikes at Night

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Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam
Robert Siodmak - 1957
Kino Classics BD Region A

The Devil Strikes at Night has several of the narrative elements plus some of the expressionistic cinematography familiar to those familiar with Siodmak's Hollywood films clustered as film noir. An innocent man is framed for murder, the real murderer is lurking in the shadows prior to his one filmed act, and finally, there are acts of erasure of identities. The main story is based on the real life case of an accused serial killer that took place in Germany, in 1944. What is of interest is that what begins as the story of a murder investigation evolves into how the German state chose to manipulate the criminal justice system in the name of the Reich.

An injured former officer, Axel Kersten, has become a top police inspector. By chance, he sees the poster which suggest that there may a connection between a recent case involving strangulation with an older, unsolved murder using a similar method. The recent victims boyfriend, Willi, an older man serving in the SS is accused of the murder simply be being in the victim's room when her body was dragged back. Kersten goes to Hamburg to investigate the recent crime which leads him to Bruno. One of the few young men still a civilian, Bruno possesses extraordinary strength but is also classified as mentally unfit. Even the evidence of Bruno's guilt is not enough to prove Willi's innocence as any public knowledge would suggest possible faults within the legal system. That Willi is guilty of minor crimes involving contraband food is sufficient reason for punishment.

There is one scene that I found curious. Bruno delivers two sack of potatoes to an apartment. It is revealed that the woman living in the apartment is not the owner but a guest. After some casual conversation with Bruno, along with a meal, she drops hints about her identity, stating her husband died in Auschwitz. The name means nothing to Bruno. Hoping that as a delivery helper, Bruno might smuggle her out of Hamburg, she clearly identifies herself as Jewish. It did strike me as odd that someone would place herself in potential jeopardy with a stranger one just met. Even odder is that the Jewish Siodmak, who had to use certain false information to get himself out of Nazi Germany, would have such a scene.

The only depiction of murder does recall Siodmak's films noir, particularly The Spiral Staircase. The murderer in the shadows, the actual act offscreen, and then a deep focus shot of a baby carriage rolling down a dark hallway away from the camera. Going back to Siodmak's beginnings with People of Sunday are a series primarily of remarkable panning shots, taken from a distance, of Mario Adorf as Bruno, running through a forest in a reenactment of one of his crimes.

The commentary by Film Noir scholar Imogen Sara Smith primarily concentrates on fitting this film with Siodmak's other work as well as film noir in general. Among the points of interest are that while such films as the previously mentioned The Spiral Staircase were enthusiastically received in France, German film critics were hostile to the films finally released in post-war Germany. Also discussed is Siodmak's frustration in trying to make more personal films after leaving Hollywood.

Mario Adorf, still active at age 91, is probably the most recognizable cast member here. The other actor who made a name for himself outside Germany, Peter Carsten, tall and blond, has been frequently typecast as a Nazi office in several war films. The Devil Strikes at Night also was a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1958, and was the winner of the German Film Awards. The blu-ray was sourced from a 2014 digital restoration from a full 104 minute print.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:45 AM