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April 26, 2022

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VI

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Singapore
John Brahm - 1947

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Johnny Stool Pigeon
William Castle - 1949

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The Raging Tide
George Sherman - 1951
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Three-disc set

The three films are from the studio known at the time as Universal-International. That they are classified as film noir is indicative of how elastic that term has become. There is little of the stylization that is found in the canonical films. Not every film can or has to be a Touch of Evil or Kiss Me Deadly, so as long as there are no unrealistic expectations, there is no reason why one can not enjoy these films as they are.

If you have seen Casablanca, then you have already seen Singapore. I exaggerate, but not by much. The comparisons are part of several reviews of John Brahms's film. The story was by screenwriter Seton I. Miller, whose name might be remembered from several classic Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s and 40s. The main supporting cast includes Roland Culver, Richard Haydn, Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd taking parts that in a Warners' film would have Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre respectively. The leads are played by Fred MacMurray, then at the top of his career as a movie star, and Ava Gardner, newly minted as a star following The Killers from the year before.

MacMurray plays a pearl smuggler returning to Singapore following the end of World War II. He hopes to resume his business and recover a cache of pearls left in a hotel that survived the war. Gardner is the fiancee MacMurray thought had been killed during a Japanese attack, only she got amnesia and is now married to plantation owner Roland Culver. The film was made when Asia was referred to as the Orient. While Singapore is not exactly a Casablanca clone, there is that ending at the airport.

John Brahm is best remembered for such films as Hangover Square and his version of The Lodger. He also directed some of the best episodes of the early 1960s television anthology series, Thriller, with "A Wig for Miss Devore" unnerving me at age 10. There are several nice shots of MacMurray and Gardner mostly in the shadows, their profiles partially illuminated.

Even William Castle was dismissive of Johnny Stool Pigeon, called it "pedestrian". It is actually better than Castle recalls, especially the dialogue free opening scene at a San Francisco pier. Federal agent Howard Duff convinces convict Dan Duryea to help him bust a narcotics ring rather than enjoy the comforts of a long stay at Alcatraz. Shelley Winters, a mobster's girlfriend, tags along, although it is never certain whose side she's on. The three end up at an Arizona dude ranch run by the overly ingratiating John McIntire. When Strangers Marry from 1944 is proof that William Castle could make a stylish film within the restrictions of a Monogram budget. Johnny Stool Pigeon does benefit from some on location photography, plus a fourth billed Tony Curtis as a hired gun. Still credited as Anthony Curtis, this is a silent performance with the actor basically glaring at everyone else. I imagine that early in his career, the suits may not have been sure how to work with or around Curtis' Bronx accent, but they knew he had screen presence.

Many years ago I saw part of a movie on television in which Shelley Winters was being interrogated by a cop in her bedroom. She is asked what she does for a living and responds that she sells hats. As she puts it, and I am paraphrasing here, men give her hats and she sells them back. I never knew the title of that film until I saw The Raging Tide. The cop is played by Stephen McNally, and he is in pursuit of Winter's boyfriend, Richard Conte. On the run in San Francisco, Conte hides out in a fishing boat operated by Charles Bickford with Alex Nicol as his son. Conte discovers he likes the honest work of a fisherman over his previous life of crime although it does not stop him from temporarily recruiting Nicol to do collect money on his behalf. The story is ultimately a parable of redemption following the small fishing boat surviving an ocean storm. Of note is that the screenplay was by Ernest K. Gann from his novel. Gann is most famous for aviation novels that have been filmed including The High and the Mighty and Fate is the Hunter.

Director George Sherman is better known for his many low budget westerns, though he did work on a handful of films in other genres. His career was somewhat circular beginning with several film starring John Wayne at Republic Pictures prior to Stagecoach, with Sherman ending his career directing Wayne in what would be his most commercially successful film, Big Jake.

All three films come with commentary tracks. Lee Gambin and Kat Ellinger offer a casual chat covering the stars and director of Singapore, additionally discussing the film's historical context. Jason Ney's commentary for Johnny Stool Pigeon is a well prepared presentation on the film's location shooting, some biographical information, and placing the film within the context of film noir at the time of production. A highlight is the inclusion of an "interview" with Dan Duryea that was distributed to several radio stations in 1949, with Ney reading the scripted questions. David Del Valle and Miles Hunter share friendly banter on The Raging Tide, primarily covering the primary cast, with a few words on Ernest Gann and cinematographer Russell Metty. Curiously, while they discuss the similarities and differences of film noir with the western, no mention is made of George Sherman's career as mostly a niche director.

All three films have been sourced from 2K restorations and look quite good when the action takes place in the shadows.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:31 AM

April 22, 2022

The Indian Tomb

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Das indische Grabmal
Joe May - 1921
Kino Classics BD Region A

I was not prepared for how different the first film version of The Indian Tomb is from Fritz Lang's version. Lang co-wrote the screenplay with then wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou for the 1921 film. Lang's 1959 version bears little resemblance other than having European characters in a fantasy India, and a few shared plot points. Both films have a woman dancing in front of a snake, but it May's film the scene is brief ending with a quick, but fatal snakebite. Lang's film is remembered mostly for its much longer scene with Debra Paget doing the hoochie coochie in front of a very large and very fake cobra. It may also be worth noting that Lang's film was actually the third version, with the second version released in 1938.

So we have British architect Herbert Rowland invited to India by a maharajah, Ayan III. The invitation comes via a yogi, Ramigani, who materializes in Rowland's house. Ramigani is a tall, imposing man, who seems to also be omniscient, outsmarting everyone by disconnecting telephones, stealing letters and causing the wheels of cars to fall off with his powerful mental telepathy. Rowland is convinced to go to India without letting anyone else know. His fiancee, Irene, is concerned enough to uncover enough clues to lead her in pursuit of Rowland in India. It turns out that Ayan might be rich and powerful, with a castle protected by a lake with hungry crocodiles, but he is also very unhappy with his wife, Princess Savitri. The princess has revealed her affection for the adventurer Mac Allen by giving him one very big ring, a gift from Ayan. Rowland questions Ayan's desire to build a tomb for Savitri in advance, causing both he and Irene to remain as house guests with restrictions at the maharajah's castle.

I will refer to The Indian Tomb as one film even though, like the remakes, it was released as two separate features. The film is probably best appreciated on its own terms. As mentioned, this is a fantasy India where part of the plot hinges on half-baked understandings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Yoga. One room that is apparently devoted to religious devotion has what looks like a very large menorah. Much of the German cast is in brown face. Olaf Fonns was 39 years old when he appeared as Herbert Rowland but already looked like somebody's grandfather. Joe May's wife, Mia, was already quite matronly at age 37. For a fiancee who steals her mother's pearls and hires a plane to fly from England to India, Joe May might have been better off casting his 18 year old daughter, the actress Eva, rather than Mama Mia. Bernhard Goetzke, the mysterious yogi, makes enough of an impression that it is no surprise that Fritz Lang cast him in three of his films. Not quite as tall, but almost as lean, is Conrad Veidt as Ayan. The name is from Sanskrit translated as "gift from God". Is it coincidental that it is one letter away from Aryan? The Indian Tomb was made at a time when India was part of German popular culture. Ayan may be the villain, if not as thoroughly villainous as Ramigani, but he is not entirely unsympathetic either.

The sets are impressive in their sheer scale of size. It is like Joe May saw Intolerance and said to himself, "I can do that!". The actors are dwarfed by several of the sets. Unless one is totally jaded from exposure to CGI, there is delight in seeing what were the state of the art special effects of a century ago, mostly seen in the first half of the film.

The blu-ray was sourced from a 2K digital restoration from 2016 which in turn was from a 1994 version assemble primarily from surviving French and Czech prints. The film is also tinted as it was at the time of release. A supplement written and narrated by Scottish film scholars David Cairns and Fiona Watson offers there assessment, plus that of other film scholars, on The Indian Tomb.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:33 AM

April 19, 2022

Rogue Cops and Racketeers: Two Crime Thrillers by Enzo G. Castelari

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The Big Racket / Il Grande Racket (1976)

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The Heroin Busters / La Via della Droga (1977)
Arrow Video BD Region A Two-disc set

This two disc set is composed of Castellari's last two films, part of the Italian genre known as poliziotteschi, but also star Fabio Testi. The genre is generally distinguished by being about cops who often use extra-legal means of foiling criminals. The most cited inspirations are two American films, Dirty Harry, in which the law is upheld by going outside legal constraints, and The French Connection for the visceral pleasure of car chases, especially in urban areas.

There are the obvious linkages of the two films not only with the same star, key crew members, supporting actors, with the second billing of a recognizable English language actor. Beyond that, Castellari's protagonists do not have a private life. They are only seen as working professionals. The criminals that are being pursued are mostly the street level soldiers working on behalf of an organization that itself may be the subsidiary of a respectable front. Even if one is able to identify the higher echelon crime bosses, their death only means a temporary disruption rather than an end to their activity.

In The Big Racket, Testi plays a cop trying to bust a small gang operating a protection racket in Rome, turning vigilante when his methods cause him to be ousted from the police force. In The Heroin Busters, Testi goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of international drug traffickers. The basic stories are topical ripped from the headlines plots. As commercial projects made within modest budgets and genre expectations, what is of interest are the ways Castellari finds ways to make his films stylistically of interest.

The most famous scene in The Big Racket also involves a questionable set-up. Testi follows the gang of youngish hoods to a field that is the rendezvous point with a well dressed gangster, Rudy, clearly higher in the chain of command. Test is noticed, and his car is pushed sideway down the edge of a hill with Testi still inside. Testi is filmed in slow motion close up with the car rolling down sideways, shards of glass flying in the air. Castellari gives away how the shot was done in his supplementary interview. It is an amazing visual moment considering the limited means at his disposal and with a star who was willing to put himself in physical danger. Prior to that scene, Rudy is introduced in a montage of six close-ups done from different angles, with Castellari repeating that moment with Testi seen in four quick consecutive close-ups from different angles, done just before one of the bigger action set pieces.

What is striking about The Heroin Busters is the location work. In an early chase scene, Testi runs by a Roman street with what can only be described as artwork, too good to be dismissed as graffiti, on the wall of an apartment building. Several of the locations are empty. One chase scene was filmed in a subway station that had not yet been opened, with neon colored rings in the tunnel. Another scene was filmed in what appears to be the basic structure of an apartment building that was either in the early stages of construction or possibly abandoned. The final chase is with two small airplanes flying over a highway that had not officially opened. Castellari makes use of framing devices within the camera frame, most notably when Testi looks through a small pipe to scope out a criminal.

Second billed Vincent Gardenia has a small role as an old time petty thief who assists Testi in identifying the organization behind the protection racket in The Big Racket. David Hemmings has a much larger role as an Interpol agent in The Heroin Busters, although it is a shock to see his gray hair and puffy face just eleven years after his star making turn in Blow-Up. Both actors dub their own voices in the English language versions of their respective films. I had to look up Marcella Michelangeli on IMDb to realize I had seen her before in Padre Padrone and Beware of a Holy Whore. Most of her work was in genre films. In The Big Racket, Michelangeli plays the baddest of bad girls, defiant when the guys in the gang wimp out.

As is usual for Arrow, there is an abundance of extras. The enclosed, illustrated booklet has essays by Italian film historian Roberto Curti and British film historian Barry Forshaw. The two casual commentary tracks by Adrian Smith and David Flint are more geared to genre enthusiasts. There are also interviews with Castellari, Testi, supporting actor Massimo Vanni, and editor Gianfranco Amicucci. The Heroin Busters also features an interview with Nicola Longo, the former undercover policeman whose experiences provided some inspiration for the film.

Two small quibbles about The Big Racket - The actress Anna Bellini is referred to by her past married name of Anna Zinnemann. She had already divorced Tim Zinnemann, son of High Noon director Fred Zinnemann, for several years. Whomever did the subtitles misspelled the family name as "Zinnermann", making me wonder how no one noticed this error. Also, editor Amicucci's interview is titled "King of Moviola". For those unfamiliar with how films were edited in the pre-digital era, the Moviola was a machine that ran film through a vertical system, operated by a foot pedal. For whatever reason, Hollywood did not adopt using the flatbed system until the 1970s, even though this was how films were edited in Europe since the mid 1930s. We see a shot of a flatbed editing suite which makes me wonder if moviola was used as a generic term for editing machines. By the way, during my brief time making films, I have used both systems.

Both films have Italian and English language tracks, plus English subtitles. As was usual at the time, both films were shot to be post-dubbed and even in the Italian versions, the voices of some of the local cast are not necessarily their own.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:00 AM

April 15, 2022

Paris, 13th District

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Les Olympiades
Jacques Audiard - 2021
IFC Films

Following his under seen western, The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard has returned to France with a more intimate film within a circumscribed space. The French title refers to a very specific part of Paris that was designed to attract young professionals, and within that area, a group of apartment towers named after countries the participated in the Olympics. While there are young professionals living and working there, there are also immigrant neighborhoods, particularly of the Chinese diaspora. The film is sources from short stories by the American graphic artist, Adrian Tomine.

The film is about three characters whose personal and professional identities shift in part from their direct and indirect relationships with each other. To describe this as a romantic triangle is both reductive and inaccurate as mercurial as the two pairings are with the man vacillating between two women. One of the women, Emilie, is caught up with online hookups and casual sex, while Nora is unsure if she even wants a sexual relationship. The man in the middle, Camille, tries to be accommodating to the uncertainty of both women.

Echoing the volatility of the relationships are the characters' respective professional lives. Emilie, of Taiwanese descent, used a French pseudonym in her customer service job at a call center, later working in a Chinese restaurant after getting fired. Camille, a black Frenchman, leaves his job as a high school teacher to work on his Ph.D, only to quit to become a real estate agent. Nora has left Bordeaux to study law in Paris, only to get her life upended when the wearing of a blonde wig caused her to be mistaken and harassed for resembling an online porn star. Out of curiosity, Nora goes to the website where her "twin", Amber Sweet, hosts online sessions. An unexpected friendship develops between the two women.

With the exception of a brief scene in color introducing Amber Sweet, the film is in black and white. As another critic has pointed out, visually Audiard's film recalls Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine from 1995, albeit a film about three young men in the margins with little hope for the social mobility of Audiard's trio. The film ultimately seems like a retrenching for Audiard after the financial failure of The Sisters Brothers and the more ambitious productions of the last decade. Of interest is that one of the cowriters of the screenplay is Celine Sciamma. Noemie Merlant, from Portrait of a Lady on Fire appears as Nora. In her feature debut, Lucie Zhang as Emilie has already received two award nominations as well as one festival award. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Ms. Zhang was born in the 13th District.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:26 AM

April 05, 2022

Jigsaw

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Val Guest - 1962
Cohen Film Collection BD Region A

It is on the commentary track with the BFI blu-ray of Expresso Bongo that Val Guest is asked about his favorites among his films. In that 2005 discussion, Jigsaw is at the top of the list. The choice is curious considering Guest's filmography. The film comes right after The Day the Earth Caught Fire, probably Guest's most serious film and the only one to get a BAFTA nomination, for the screenplay cowritten with Wolf Mankowitz. Two years earlier, Mankowitz received a solo nomination for what is probably Guest's best known film, the still influential Expresso Bongo (see Last Night in Soho and Absolute Beginners). At the time of its release, Jigsaw was lauded for being one of the best British police procedural films.

The source novel, Sleep Long, My Love is first of a series of novels of detective Fred Fellows, written by American author Hillary Waugh. The inspiration was an actual murder investigation that took place in Connecticut. Guest moved the film to Brighton and the surrounding area, a significant break from the London based genre films. The scene of the crime is an older house, one of the few in a rural area that is mostly a low rent trailer park. One first shot inside is of a table with both playing cards and tarot cards. A woman in her 30s has woken up and decides to wake the man sleeping with her. All that is seen of the man are partial images from the back. The woman tries to convince the man to make their relationship permanent and informs him that she is pregnant. We never see the face of the man, nor does he speak. The last image of the woman is of her mouth muffled by the man's hands, cut directly to a shot of a train with a shriek of a whistle.

The investigation is handled by Detective Jim Wilks with his uncle, the retirement age Fred Fellows. The jigsaw is the case where there seem to be no clues to the identities of the murderer or his victim. Where there seem to be clues lead initially to misdirection. The title could possibly refer to the state of the victim, with the implication that she was dismembered before her body was hidden in a trunk. We never see the victim, only the faces of the detectives when the body is discovered. Coming as it did after Psycho and Peeping Tom, Jigsaw may have been intended as being tasteful at a time when depictions of murder were becoming more graphic, but seems timid in retrospect.

The film came out during what may be considered Val Guest's peak creative period. Starting out with comedies and generally lighter fare, Guest's best films are the more serious works. Most of his films bear his name as writer or cowriter, taking as much of a direct hand in shaping films that were often assignments in a variety of genres. As in many of Guest's films, there is a role for his wife and muse, Yolande Donlan. Here, Ms. Donlan plays a would-be victim of the murderer who helps provide a break in the investigation. Guest's career went into a steep decline following the release of the 1967 version of Casino Royale with Guest directing the scenes with Woody Allen and given the job of making a cohesive film from the work of four other directors. The blu-ray of Jigsaw has no extras other than trailers. The film has been noted for providing a semi-documentary look at Brighton in the early 1960s. Val Guest's career may have uneven in quality, but is worth investigating as a writer/director who was more than a journeyman but not quite an auteur.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:47 AM

April 01, 2022

Man's Favorite Sport?

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Howard Hawks - 1964
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Although I consider myself an auteurist in my approach to writing about films, I do not tether myself to some of the orthodoxies as established by Andrew Sarris. As heretical as it may be to some, especially after revisiting some of his films, I do no hold Howard Hawks in a great esteem as others. Hawks especially seems to have run out of inspiration after Harari when he was essentially trying to capture past success. Several others have already written about how Man's Favorite Sport? was built on the bones of Bringing Up Baby. The follow-up, Red Line 7000 recalls The Crowd Roars. After two lukewarm commercial and critical films, Hawks was reduced to remaking Rio Bravo two more times. The commercial success was due to star John Wayne. Unlike the period westerns, when Hawks made films taking place in the early 1960s, the sense that he is straining to be contemporary.

Younger viewers may be surprised to know that there was a time when Abercrombie and Fitch sold sporting goods, and was the store of choice for well-heeled sportsmen including Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. In Hawks' film, Roger Willoughby is the top salesman of the San Francisco store, specializing in fishing gear. His instructional book is revered by other sportsmen. It is after the public relations representative for a lodge, Abigail Page, signs Willoughby to a fishing tournament, that it is revealed that he has never actually fished but has based his career on listening to customers, passing on their best information. The film follows familiar Hawksian tropes with the combative relationship between Roger and Abigail, scenes of humiliation, followed by a resolution where all pretenses are finally set aside.

Hawks wanted to make Man's Favorite Sport? with Cary Grant. And the screenplay was written with Grant in mind, initially opposite Katherine Hepburn. All through my watching the blu-ray, I was trying to imagine how the lines spoken by Rock Hudson would have sounded had they been delivered by Grant. And Hudson tries really, really hard, but as the constantly exasperated Roger Willoughby, he lacks the lightness Grant conveys even in the most frustrating circumstances. Paula Prentiss follows the template of Hawksian women, modeled after Hawks ex-wife, "Slim" Keith. Prentiss matches Hudson for participating in the physical comedy.

The opening credits seems to promise a different kind of film. The title song concludes that man's favorite sport is the pursuit of women. What we see are a collection of various young, conventionally attractive women engaged in a variety of sports. The photos were by Don Ornitz, originally for Life magazine. In this film, female athletes like Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolph do not exist, nor anyone like them. There is also the myth of the Hawksian woman as the equal to the male characters, yet fishing here is presented as an entirely male enterprise. An opportunity for more comedy seems squandered by not having Prentiss demonstrating skills with the rod and reel.

The commentary track by film historian Michael Schlesinger also includes comments by Prentiss and her husband, actor/director Richard Benjamin. Schlesinger makes no secret of his love for this film. Do I have a blind spot concerning Man's Favorite Sport?. In any event, I am not one to begrudge those who have admired this film, but only to say that I do not share their enthusiasm. Schlesinger does point out how Hawks directed Hudson to mimic certain mannerisms of Cary Grant. Also he points out the several character actors who have previously worked with Hawks. One of the uncredited cast members, briefly seen as a secretary, is Margaret Sheridan, best known as the lone girl with the Arctic team in the original The Thing. The blu-ray is sourced from a very good print that does justice to the use of color, especially noticeable in a scene in a piano museum with colored glass windows. While a revisit of the film and the commentary track may not change the critical opinion of some viewers, Hawkian completists should be pleased. And, OK, I admit it - I did laugh at the scene of the bear riding the little trail bike.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:00 AM