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January 30, 2018

Jack the Ripper

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Robert S. Baker & Monty Berman - 1959
Severin Films BD Regions ABC / Region 0 DVD two-disc set

David Gregory and his team at Severin Film put in a lot of effort in putting together this set of three versions of this 1959 production. Too bad the film itself wasn't better. It's not that Jack the Ripper is bad, but it does run a poor third behind two later productions from Baker and Berman, Flesh and the Fiends (1960) and The Hellfire Club (1961). Aside from the fictionalized version of 19th Century grave robbers Burke and Hare, written and directed by periodic collaborator John Gilling, Flesh and the Fiends also benefits from a strong cast with Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance and Billie Whitelaw. The lesser known Hellfire Club, an intriguing period costume drama about a hidden inheritance and a secret society, also benefits from a cast including Cushing, Keith Michell, Adrienne Corri in a bathtub, and the luscious German actress, Kai Fischer.

Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster wrote several horror films for Baker and Berman. The essential story is based loosely on a since discredited theory that the Ripper was a doctor avenging the death of his son who died following exposure to syphilis from a prostitute. In the film, the son has committed suicide because he found out that the woman he loved was formerly a lady of the night. Where the filmmakers get it wrong is also creating an unnecessary narrative where the investigation is assisted by a detective from New York City, based on the assumption that this would make the film more marketable for the lucrative U.S. market. To that end, bland Canadian actor Lee Patterson, with his thick, 1950s slickly coiffed pompadour gets top billing as the cop on a working vacation in England. The rest of the cast is made up of British character actors including Eddie Byrne (not to be confused with Edd Byrnes) as the Scotland Yard detective who's done most of the investigation. While the events take place in 1888, the murders have been compacted to a matter of days.

Like his work with Hammer, Sangster throws in the expected red herrings, including a mute hunchback with a badly scarred face. And like seemingly every Jack the Ripper movie, there's a music hall scene with Can-can dancers, followed by an unappreciated solo male singer.

I don't recall the source, but I do recall reading that Hammer made three versions of their films, with the mildest version for the British market, more violent for the U.S., and the most violent for Japanese viewers. Baker and Berman have been noted for making at least two versions of some of their productions, with a "continental" version sprinkled with partial nudity for the European market. In the case of Jack the Ripper, the blu-ray has the British release version taken from a telecine at 1.33:1, the U.S. version taken from the Library of Congress print at 1.66.1, and the French version, on the DVD, which is the British version dubbed and subtitled, with the various scenes or shots of bare-breasted women inserted. The "continental takes" can also be seen as a blu-ray extra. If for no other reason, this Jack the Ripper set is valuable as part of genre film history in presenting side by side comparisons of the same film, with slight variations based on censorship at the time as well as commercial concerns.

In an interview, Monty Berman was dismissive of the nudity for the continental version. There is one slightly racy shot that was excised from the British version, but is in U.S. release, of a gentleman nuzzling a showgirl just above her breast after pouring champagne on her. The U.S. version, supervised by showman Joseph E. Levine, is the best of the three versions presented here. Although the source print shows some signs of wear, it is more visually pleasing in wide screen. Also the scenes of violence are more complete. Most importantly, a couple of shots not in the British version are included in the U.S. version, making more sense out of close-ups of characters reacting in horror, especially with the color insert near the end. Levine also replaced the music track by Stanley Black for a new music score by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo, with Levine getting a few more dollars from the publishing rights. It's a brassy score, but also more dramatic and inventive.

The blu-ray includes a commentary track recorded in 2005 with Baker, Sangster, and Assistant Director Peter Manley. All three have since died. Monty Berman, who was in ill health, and died in 2006, is virtually ignored for his contributions. Where Berman's absence is conspicuous is when Baker takes credit for the "dutch angles" used during the scenes of murder, saying he was inspired by The Third Man. While Carol Reed's film may have been a source of inspiration, it was Berman who was a cinematographer on that film. Berman also was born in Whitechapel, the area of London where Jack the Ripper takes place. It may also be worth noting that one of Berman's first jobs was as a cinematographer for Michael Powell's Edge of the World (1937) and Some Days (1935). I have to wonder if it is less than coincidental that Powell made Peeping Tom the year following Jack the Ripper. A couple of the extras review the history of Jack the Ripper and some of the other films inspired by the legend. The extra of most interest was by French distributor Alain Petit, who was able to restore the French version of Jack the Ripper, and also discusses some of the history of how British films of the late 1950s and early 60s were produced with multiple versions.

One complaint to add is that only the British version has English subtitles. I have some measurable hearing loss, and sometimes dialogue is not heard clearly. However, there were several moments when I understood what the characters were saying, but the person responsible for the subtitles apparently did not and would have a subtitle noting that the bit of dialogue was unclear. I would hope that Severin Films looks into getting someone different for this task in the future.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:55 AM

January 28, 2018

Coffee Break

Josh Radnor in Happythankyoumoreplease (Josh Radnor - 2011

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:03 AM

January 23, 2018

Female Stars of British Cinema


Female Stars of British Cinema - The Woman in Question
Melanie Williams - 2017
Edinburgh University Press

Melanie Williams' book in question is partially about a select group of actresses, designated as being emblematic of decades in British film history. Simultaneously, Williams looks at the state of the British film industry during those decades as well as an overview of the zeitgeist of the time. The chronology goes from the Forties through 2015. The opening anecdote - about the perceived limited prospects for the still unknown Audrey Hepburn, through the closing chapter on persistent industry myopia, suggests that while Hollywood may look at British actresses as bringing a certain sense of class or style, for the actresses the bright lights of Hollywood often means career survival.

For American readers, a certain amount of Anglophilia in addition to Cinephlia may be required. Although her declared parameters are loose, Williams has chosen actresses primarily known for there work in British films. Jean Kent, representing the austere Forties, may be the least known here. The book's subtitle is taken from one of the handful of films that Kent headlined. Diana Dors has a certain iconic status. Touted as the British Marilyn Monroe, Dors face has outlived her 1950s hits as can be seen on the cover of this book, as well as her portrait on The Smiths' Singles compilation. Rita Tushingham's stardom emerged just as the Sixties began and ended at the close of that decade, with recent blu-ray releases of A Taste of Honey and The Knack providing introductions to a younger audience. Glenda Jackson takes over the 1970s. The 1980s and 90s see a return to more traditional concepts of youth and beauty with Emily Lloyd and Helena Bonham Carter. Making her first significant steps as a star in the mid-90s through the present is an actress neither young, nor conventionally attractive, Judi Dench.

One might quibble with the choice of actresses, all of whom were chosen because they were born in England, rather than, for example, Scotland, as in the case of Deborah Kerr. The chapter on Judi Dench may prove uncomfortable for some readers as there are several paragraphs regarding Dench's relationship with the recently disgraced Harvey Weinstein, who essentially shepherded Dench's career towards big screen stardom. The final chapter, partially about racism in the British film industry reviews some of the changes that have taken place, yet also feels slightly dated having been written prior to the release of Lady Macbeth with its conflicts of class, race and gender.

The bigger picture here is on stardom, whether pursued or imposed, how it is maintained or lost, public and private personas, and being part of a film industry that is subject to a variety of ebbs and flows. At the time of this writing, it appears that some things don't change. Williams writes about how after her debut in Wish You were Here, Emily Lloyd made a point of turning down sexually charged roles such as the film, Scandal, about the Profumo affair in part to avoid being typecast. A more recent news item is about Keira Knightley rejecting contemporary roles in favor of period pieces due to the treatment of the female characters in the scripts. Sometimes it's not just the films that are remade, but the experiences of the film talent.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:16 AM

January 21, 2018

Coffee Break

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Jean Reno and Salome Stevenin in Comme un Chef (Daniel Cohen - 2012)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM

January 16, 2018

Kills on Wheels


Tiszta szívvel
Attila Till - 2016
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Often while watching Kills on Wheels, I thought of the late, quadriplegic cartoonist, John Callahan. The butts of the jokes were often people without arm or legs, maybe a hook for a hand. Callahan didn't even spare himself with a western posse stopped at an abandoned wheelchair, with one of the men declaring, "He won't get far on foot". I still recall one cartoon where a sign was featured stating, "Hire the handicapped. They're fun to watch."

Till sometimes has fun at the expense of his characters as well, as when one wheelchair bound character rolls on a pathway, only to find that his only way down is on stairway. I don't know if Till knew of Callahan and his cartoons, but his two young characters, Zolika and Barba, aspire to be cartoonists. Their adventures as part-time hit men recruited by former fireman Rupaszov may, or may not, be springing from their imagination.

The original title translates from Hungarian as "a pure heart". What is interesting here is that the English title describes the action of the characters, while the Hungarian title is about the intent. Without giving too much of the story away, most of the killing is done by Rupaszov. Zolika and Barba might be accomplices, but their main motivation is a temporary sense of independence from life in the rehabilitation center that is their home. Away from therapists and doctors, the two young men get to enjoy Budapest night life, free flowing alcohol and even some female company.

Unlike the stream of Hollywood films that are centered on disabled characters, Zoltan Fenyvesi as Zolika is genuinely dependent on his wheels. The actor playing Barba, Adam Fekete, has cerebral palsy. Able bodied actors might complain less about any physical demands after seeing these two getting knocked into the Danube River in one scene. The actor playing Rupaszov, Szabolcs Thuroczy, may familiar to those who saw White God from last year. Parts of the film appear to have been filmed in real locations with scores of real-life extras. Till has reportedly worked as a volunteer with the disabled, providing some inspiration for the film.

Several shots are from the level, if not point of view, of someone in a wheelchair. There is one bravura scene of a shootout in a gangster's mansion, with what appears to be a single long tracking shot moving across two divided rooms sharing the same floor, starting with Rupaszov, with the camera following his victims as they are shot. The real life action is occasionally broken up with images of Zolika and Barba's artwork in progress.

The blu-ray includes three brief deleted scenes, plus some brief bits with Till and his actors discussing the making of Kills on Wheels.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:41 AM

January 14, 2018

Coffee Break

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Nino Manfredi and Emma Penella in The Executioner (Luis Garcia Berlanga - 1963)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM

January 09, 2018

Spaghetti Westerns at the Crossroads

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Spaghetti Westerns at the Crossroads: Studies in Relocation, Transition and Appropriation
Edited by Austin Fisher
Edinburgh University Press - 2016

Crossroads would have been simpler. What we have here are twelve chapters each going in their own direction. Not that any of these chapters are without interest, but the serious film scholar may respond with more questions than answers.

What dominates more than anything else are reminders that the so-called Spaghetti western was usually an international co-production, and the films are the results of cinematic, political and cultural influences that are being analyzed well after the genre has come and gone. Certainly Sergio Leone gets his due, but also two other Sergios - Sollima and Corbucci. Sollima unsurprisingly is cited for his trilogy of films starring Tomas Milian. Corbucci is cited most frequently for his film The Mercenary. For both Cobucci and Sollima, the films in question can be read as political allegories, often taking place during the Mexican Revolution.

Lee Broughton brings attention to the lesser known Giuseppe Colizzi and his films Ace High(1968) and Boot Hill (1969). The two films featured African-American actors Brock Peters and Woody Strode, respectively, in rolls and billing more significant than their work in Hollywood, Broughton also discusses the presentation of black actors in Hollywood westerns prior to shift when "blaxploitation" films were a commercially viable genre.

Genre hybrids are also part of the discussion on the handful (fistful?) of Italian westerns that featured Asian characters, if not Asian actors, as well as the Asian films that showed the influence of the Italian westerns international popularity. Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) is discussed here, although it is the later Goyokin (1969) which arguably shows Gosha working under the spell of Leone. Mentioned in passing is the Euro-western, Five Man Army (1969) which included Tetsuro Tamba, a star of the two Gosha film. That film also included frequent Italian western star Bud Spencer, and was co-written by Dario Argento, one of the several writers for Once Upon a Time in the West.

Less obvious connections are to be made in a survey of Hindi films that transposed aspects of the Italian westerns to contemporary stories. Stretching things further is a discussion on two early films by Pietro Germi, arguing that the use of certain western tropes made the films in question proto-Italian westerns.

Pete Falconer suggests that the Italian western has replaced the classic Hollywood western as defining the genre in popular culture. There are a few films mentioned as "afterlife Westerns", those films made following the demise of the western as a commercially viable genre and how genre conventions have been reworked for a younger audience. If there is a crossroad, then a new map is needed to make sense of the newer films such as Kristian Levring's The Salvation (2014), Sweetwater (2013) - among the period and contemporary westerns of the past decade to star Ed Harris, and the direct to video productions that appear on Netflix.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:06 AM

January 07, 2018

Coffee Break

Paul Newman in Harper (Jack Smight - 1966)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM

January 02, 2018

Miss Zombie


Sabu - 2013
Redemption BD Region A

Much of the activity in Miss Zombie takes place at the home of a middle-aged doctor, his wife and young child, a boy who incessantly takes photos with a Polaroid camera. Their house looks looks like large slabs of concrete, more like a mausoleum than a home. It's a fitting location, with Mount Fuji occasionally glimpsed in the distance, for a film that plays with some of the conventions of the zombie genre.

Writer-director Sabu, the pseudonym for Hiroyuki Tanaka, has created a film both elegant and elegiac. Filmed primarily in widescreen black and white, with a five minute burst of color near the end, this is the kind of film that is an unexpected blend of grind house and art house. The viewer is only given hints about a viral infection that has created a number of zombies, who have been herded into cages. Those with a low level of infection have been sold as menial help or pets. Instructions are to feed these domesticated zombies only fruit or vegetables, and absolutely no meat to prevent them from turning feral. A gun is included for preventative measure.

What is really at the heart here is an exploration of family love and loss of identity. Sara, the title character, is employed mainly to clean a stone pathway in front of the house. Much of the soundtrack is of the sounds made by Sara's brushing the stones. Walking with her face cast downward, she is symbolic of those who are exploited in labor and sexually. As she trudges to the storehouse that is her home, children toss rocks at her, while some neighborhood punks think nothing of sticking knives into her shoulder. Sara continues walking, with nights passed looking at a photo of her former self, pregnant, with an unscarred body.

Sara's presence upsets the family dynamics. The son, Kenichi, is brought back to the house dead from drowning in a pond. We don't see the death of Kenichi, but the description evoked for me that moment in James Whale's Frankenstein where the monster tosses the young girl in a pond. The mother, Shizuko begs Sara to bring Kenichi back to life. Among the unforeseen consequences, Sara becomes more human, while Shizuko becomes more physically awkward and eventually inarticulate in her cries.

Sara's final flashback unmistakably recalls Night of the Living Dead, but in other ways Miss Zombie is closer to such films as the Korean The Housemaid or Joseph Losey's The Servant as examinations of class and entitlement. With the current state of Japanese films available for western viewers being what it is, I'm glad to see a belated release by a filmmaker relatively little known to stateside viewers. Certainly, the ending is the most heartbreaking to be seen in a film about the living dead since Duane Jones' brief moment of victory in George Romero's classic.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 10:00 AM