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October 25, 2022

The Great Kidnapping

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La polizia sta a guardare
Roberto Infascelli - 1973
Raro BD Regions ABC

If someone was completely unfamiliar with the Italian crime film genre known as poliziottesco, they could do worse than have The Great Kidnapping as an introduction. This particular stream of films reflected a period in Italy of political instability coupled with various crimes, some of which were carried out by political extremists on both ends of the spectrum. The main tropes of the genre are present with a determined police commissioner making an investigation that requires a few extra-legal steps and ruffling the bureaucracy. Also, there is at least one Hollywood star, usually an older actor, prominently billed regardless of the size of his role. At least car chase takes place within city limits.

The Italian title translates as "the police are watching" which is more accurate for this film. There are multiple kidnappings of the college age sons of wealthy businessmen. Enrico Maria Salerno plays the police commissioner investigating the kidnappings. He is convinced that the best was to stop the kidnappings is to not pay the ransom. Lee J. Cobb is the previous commissioner who tries to advise Salerno. Jean Sorel, usually seen in more action oriented roles, plays the prosecutor who seems to always get in the way due to the contradictory protocols of Italian law. Salerno sets out to prove that the kidnappings are related and are part of a greater scheme on behalf of an unidentified political group.

Unlike similarly themed films by Umberto Lenzi or Fernando Di Leo, The Great Kidnapping is relatively light in graphic violence. The knifing of a police informer is mostly obscured by the backs of the two killers with only the face of the victim visible. More surprising rather than shocking is the sight of Lee J. Cobb without a hairpiece, making him less immediately recognizable. While second billed with a pivotal role, Cobb does not have a lot of screen time. The film comes only with the Italian language track, with the absence of Cobb's familiar growl jarringly replaced with another actor's voice. The only supplement included is of "Tough Guy Film Expert" Mike Malloy discussing Lee J. Cobb's career with emphasis on his couple of Italian films. While the connections with other actors who would later appear in Italian crime films is of some interest, Malloy makes the mistake of conflating the House of Un-American Activities with Joseph McCarthy, who had nothing to do with the Hollywood blacklist.

The Great Kidnapping was one of only two films directed by Roberto Infascelli. Most of Infascelli's credits are as a producer with his best known films being the westerns starring Tony Anthony as "The Stranger". One other well known cast member is former Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi, appearing as the blackmailed step-mother of one of the kidnapping victims. The urgent theme music composed by Stelvio Cipriani sounded very familiar to me. As noted by someone in IMDb, Cipriani's score was recycled for What Have They Done to Your Daughters? the following year.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:31 AM

October 18, 2022

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema X

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Flesh and Fury
Joseph Pevney - 1952

The Square Jungle
Jerry Hopper - 1955

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World in My Corner
Jesse Hobbs - 1956
KL Studio Classics BD Region A three-disc set

This new Film Noir set is made up of three boxing movies. None are going to be considered on the same level as Rocky, Raging Bull, or older classics like Golden Boy or Champion, nor is that the aspiration of the filmmakers. What these films represent is a sub-genre of sports movies with the protagonist fighting in and out of the ring, learning a life lesson in less than an hour and a half running time. Tony Curtis stars in two of the films with Audie Murphy taking a break from playing a cowboy or soldier for the third entry. All three films have the same template of boxing as a means of achieving upward mobility for young men with otherwise limited futures.

Curtis plays a deaf-mute boxer in Flesh and Fury, winning his bouts in part because he is not distracted by the noise of the crowd. He attracts the attention of Jan Sterling who sees that Curtis gets the management he needs to become a welterweight champion while she gets to live the lifestyle she feels she deserves. Mona Freeman plays the journalist who shows Curtis that he can live beyond his self-imposed limits as a deaf-mute. Will Curtis choose good girl Freeman over the conniving Sterling? Will Curtis win his championship fight?

What the film does well is play with sound and its absence to provide a sense of Curtis' auditory experiences. Not simply silence, but also when he has hearing restored in one ear only to find the chatter at a cocktail party both physically painful and oppressive. The fight scenes are filmed competently. The scenes of training are sufficient reminders of Tony Curtis' athleticism in the early part of his career. The highpoint of film historian Daniel Kremer's commentary track is his examination of the career of blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon. Also of interest is Kremer's finding parallels to Darius Marder's Sound of Metal.

In The Square Jungle, Tony Curtis is three years older, ten pounds heavier, and moves from grocery store clerk to Middleweight champion. A more star heavy film with Jim Backus as Curtis' alcoholic father, Ernest Borgnine as the bibliophile ex-con trainer, a young David Janssen who just seems to show up with no identifiable purpose, Carmen McRae glimpsed as a nightclub singer, Pat Crowley as the good girl, and Leigh Snowden as the not-so-good girl. I had hoped for a better film as it was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman, producer and writer respectively of Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind and Tarnished Angels. Director Jerry Hopper is a journeyman doing competent work. What is memorable is this may be the only non-religious film that has quotes from the Talmud.

Audie Murphy is the poor and hungry pugilist in World in My Corner. Trying to keep to the straight and narrow, Murphy finds his only path to the championship is through the mob. Murphy also wants to make enough money to marry Barbara Rush, appearing here as the daughter of manipulative millionaire Jeff Morrow. Also in the cast is actor/dancer Tommy Rall in a straight dramatic role as Murphy's best friend from their slum neighborhood. Professional boxer Chico Vejar plays a mobbed up boxer and Murphy's main opponent in the ring. In the opening scene with Vejar checking on Murphy's boxing ability, he has the best line in the film cracking that he has seen better fights a hockey game.

Was World in My Corner one of the boxing films Martin Scorsese studied prior to filming Raging Bull? There is sometimes a documentary feel in the way the boxing matches are filmed here. Whether it is the camera or the choice of lens, the shots of the fighter are closer, tighter and more immediate than they are in the two other films in this collection. Hibbs opens the film aggressively with a close-up of Audie Murphy as if boxing the viewer.

Film historian Eddy Von Mueller provided the commentary tracks for the two latter films. The commentary for World in My Corner is of greater interest in reviewing how boxing was a regular part of early television broadcasting. Also of interest is a look at the careers of some of the professional boxers who play Murphy's opponents. All three films are from 2K restorations, with World in My Corner looking especially sharp with its crisp black and white cinematography.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:13 AM

October 11, 2022

Murder at the Vanities

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Mitchell Leisen - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Arguably, the biggest star in Murder at the Vanities is Travis Banton. No, he is never seen. But his costumes pushed the envelope for what was allowed in a pre-Code film. Breasts appear barely covered. There are suggestions of on-screen nudity. Earl Carroll was most famous for his variety shows presented in New York City between the 1920s and 30s. His best known competitor was Florenz Ziegfeld. But Carroll was known for his more scantily clad chorus girls, and the film would seem to be a close to the live show as might have been allowed, and certainly more than one would see had the film been produced a year later.

The murder is almost besides the point. Stage manager Jack Oakie and police detective Victor McLaglen exchange fast-talking insults while trying to figure out who is killing the unknown woman found bleeding in the catwalk and one of the featured performers, all during the course of the on-stage show. There is a sub-plot that never really gets resolved involving the star tenor and a secret relationship. As long has the film needed something resembling a story, I would have wished there was more Oakie and McLaglen and less of romantic duo Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle.

Coincidentally, both Brisson and Carlisle left Hollywood in 1935 in favor of acting on stage. The two are first introduced singing "Cocktails for Two", with Brisson giving that chestnut a more emphatic treatment in a solo performance. Carlisle would play a somewhat similar role as part of a forgettable romantic couple with tenor Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera. More memorable for Carlisle is a song titled "Sweet Marijuana", which in spite of the male chorus wearing oversized sombreros in front a a giant cactus is exactly what you probably think that song is about.

I do not think there would be a problem with taking a familiar Franz Liszt melody and having Duke Ellington jazz it up. Giving it the title "The Rape of the Rhapsody" may cause some eyeball rolling. Classical musicians in what appears to be early 19th Century costumes are chased off stage by the music of Ellington's band. Black chorus dancers take to the stage and although the camera pans across a line of the chorus girls, they are never filmed with the same prominence as the white chorus girls. Another reminder of the casual racism of the time is when one of the chorus girls compares the number of blues singers on Broadway with the amount of "brunettes in Africa".

Director Leisen even gets in the act, a cameo as an orchestra conductor. Unlike the Warner Brothers musicals, the stage space filmed here does resemble a real stage, if oversized. Unlike the Busby Berkeley fantasies with their elaborate combination of choreography and cinematography, Leisen settles for a few canted angles for a stylistic flourish.

Aside from Jack Oakie and Victor McLaglen, most of the credited cast members are better known as supporting players, including future television producer Gail Patrick, depression era starlet Toby Wing, and the future Ming the Merciless, Charles Middleton. It is the uncredited chorus members that would become stars in the next decade if IMDb can be relied on - Lucille Ball, Alan Ladd, Ann Sheridan and Dennis O'Keefe are listed. Jazz and blues singer Ernestine Anderson is listed as one of chorus girls.

Providing enthusiastic commentary is film historian Anthony Slide who makes no secret about his admiration for Toby Wing. What is probably the most interesting part of the history of the making of Murder at the Vanities is how Paramount Pictures made it a point to ignore to the production code and the administrators, at least until the code was more firmly enforced. Also of interest is pointing out that the jazz reworking of Liszt as played by Ellington and company was the work of Arthur Johnston. With Sam Coslow, Johnston wrote the songs in the film, and Carl Brisson was the singer who introduced "Cocktails for Two". And if after almost ninety years, "Cocktails for Two" comes across as quaint, there is something to be admired about having the literacy to rhyme chansonette with serviette.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:45 AM

October 06, 2022

Denver Film Festival - The Line-Up

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The schedule for the 45th Denver Film Festival has been released. Unlike last year, this year's festival will be totally in person. Health protocols are now basically on the honor system, though if I do go to any screenings this year, I will probably mask up due to memories of what happened to me after sitting next to a woman who claimed that her cough during Thelma was not infectious. Most of the screening will take place at the Denver Film Society's Sie Film Center and the AMC 9+CO 10. A bit of explanation about that AMC theater for those outside of Denver - no crazy arithmetic, the multiplex is part of an area, mostly restaurants, that is bordered by 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. One unusual screening location is the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Having seen the festival evolve through its entire history, it is also interesting in what is being shown. Coming a month after the New York Film Festival, and two months after Venice, Toronto and Telluride, there is an increase in films getting theatrical play within weeks and sometimes days of their festival premieres. I remember when there was a gap of almost a year between when Paris, Texas won at Cannes, and when it finally appeared at a theater near me. Now, notable films from the festival circuit such as Tar and Decision to Leave will already have had theatrical playdates. Several of the big titles are scheduled for release in December.

Most of the attention has been on bigger titles, The Whale, Armageddon Time and Women Talking among the films with major studio backing. There are well over one hundred films, a global selection. There is also "An Evening with Mark Mothersbaugh", with the former Devo frontman discussing is work in composing music for film and television. The festival also will continue with a Virtual Reality event titled Gumball Dreams, described as having viewers assist aliens transition from one reality to the next. The Stan Brakhage Vision Award, given to an "experimental" filmmaker, will be going to James Benning. Retrospective screenings are limited to a tribute to Jean-Luc Godard with Pierrot le fou and Sony Classics 30th Anniversary with Run, Lola, Run.

As far as what I will be covering, I am waiting to see what will be available in the form of critics' screening, online links, and what may require in person attendance. Some of the coverage will also reflect my own interests. While I do not know if I will be covering any of the following films, several titles have my attention. One documentary certain to have greater attention is Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind. With seemingly everyone weighing in on the film, Blonde, here is a film about the author of the source novel. Among filmmakers from Colorado is Alexandre O. Philippe with Lynch/Oz. The newest narrative film by Cambodian-French filmmaker and historian Davy Chou, Return to Seoul is one of the Special Presentations. Chou's documentary, Golden Slumbers is a personal history of what was once a thriving film industry in Cambodia, highly recommended. A personal note, we both have contributed chapters to the book Southeast Asian Cinema. Part of the Polish wave of filmmakers who emerged in the late 1960s, Jerzy Skolimowki remains active with his film EO, the title based on the sound of a donkey, and a story inspired by another film about a donkey, Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar. I am hoping some of my international cinephile friends might offer suggestions on some of these films, especially those that might be considered below-the-radar.

The festival is scheduled from November 2 through 13. A link to the full schedule is here.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:58 AM

October 04, 2022

Sex and Lucia

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Lucia y el sexo
Julio Medem - 2001
Music Box Films BD Region A

I am certain that I saw Sex and Lucia at the time of its U.S. release, almost twenty years ago. At the same time, it turned out that while watching the new blu-ray, I remembered nothing of the film at all, no scenes, not even vague images. I have also seen several other films by Julio Medem, his Red Squirrel was reportedly admired by Stanley Kubrick. While the some of the narrative and stylistic aspects may be idiosyncratic for each film, there is a continual interest in the volatility of intimate relationships.

The film defies an easy synopsis. There are several strands of stories intertwined, all connected, bouncing between a past and a present. The characters are all connected in some way with a novelist, Lorenzo, struggling to write his second novel. Some concentration is required to keep sense of the events and the various relationships. Medem drops a few hints along the way that suggest that what we see may be the enactment of Lorenzo's novel while it is being written rather than events in his life. What might be considered self-referential is the off-screen narration in praise of incomplete story telling. Ambiguity is the point here.

The film is less about Lucia, who is not part of some of the narrative threads, while sex is what ties and unties the various couplings. It seems not coincidental that part of the film takes place on an island where at one end of the beach there is the unsubtle symbolism with a partially hidden hole and an out of service lighthouse. Most of the sex is between Lucia and Lorenzo, actors Paz Vega and Tristan Ulluo, with some assistance of body doubles. This is the complete version of Medem's film, shorn of two minutes at the time of its initial U.S. release. I would not be able to say for certain what has been restored, but my guess would be mostly the male frontal nudity.

The blu-ray comes with a video supplement by critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who presents the argument that the depiction of sex is gender neutral, neither the frequently criticized "male gaze", nor what could be described as privileging a female view. That one of the characters is a retired porn actress is referred to primarily in a positive light. The film begins with an anonymous coupling on the island, in the water and under the stars. For Medem, sex is part of the natural order of life. The blu-ray also includes two older supplements, a "Making of . . . " and brief interviews with the main cast and crew members. While these supplements will not answer the ambiguous aspects of Sex and Lucia, they are helpful in explaining Medem's process as a filmmaker.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:44 AM