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February 26, 2019

Desert Fury

desert fury poster.jpg

Lewis Allen - 1947
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

From the New York Times, September 25, 1947 - " . . . Desert Fury is such an incredibly bad picture in all respects save one, and that is photographically." I usually don't gush over the digital conversion of older films, but Desert Fury had me with the first close-up of Lizabeth Scott and her liquid red lips in glorious, old-fashioned Technicolor. Setting aside the story and any other concerns, one glimpse of those lips is enough justification for why blu-ray was invented. The source print was in pristine condition, and the digital rendition appears to be faithful to how the film was seen theatrically by viewers seventy years ago.

It's not just Scott's lips. There's an exterior shot of a mansion, far enough to see the entire building, where the sense of detail is such that individual leaves could be counted. Also the strands of Lizabeth Scott's hair, the sharpness of the combed part on John Hodiak, and the barely perceptible beads of sweat on Wendell Corey's forehead. The interior of the mansion is a blue-gray shade, making it easy to draw attention to anything worn by Scott or Mary Astor. In one nighttime scene, Scott blends in with her dark bedroom, except for this pink hairpin that is impossible to ignore. The combination of these visual bits of business help make the story one that can be disregarded.

The source novel is titled, Desert Town. Location shooting in Arizona was used for the fictional town of Chuckawalla, Nevada. Two gangsters, Eddie Bendix and Johnny Ryan are driving into this small town for vaguely hinted at reasons. Stopping in front of the narrow bridge, which figures more prominently in the story, they temporarily block Paula Haller. Paula just dropped out of college, and wants to work for her mother, Fritzi, who runs the popular Purple Sage casino. Deputy sheriff Tom Hanson is in love with Paula, and knows a thing or two about Eddie Bendix. Almost everybody seems to be running away from their respective pasts. There are no ellipsis, but the in almost every scene that would normally explain motivations and relationship, there are interruptions with incomplete or unstated thought.

In the commentary track, Imogen Sara Smith discusses why Desert Fury can be considered film noir. The New York Times review categorized the film as a modern western. Some might even consider the film as strictly melodrama. There is none of the visual stylization usually associated with film noir. The exception to that would be in a rather unusually composed shot. Lizabeth Scott is having a conversation with Wendell Corey, while Corey is doing some minor car repair. Following a conventional full shot of the two actors in the frame, Lewis Allen cuts to an upward angled two-shot with the faces of Scott on the left, and Corey on the right, filling the frame. In a later scene, John Hodiak and Corey have a shoot-out inside a cafe. There is a shot of Hodiak facing the camera, gun in hand. The lights behind Hodiak go dark, but there is no explanation as to the change of lighting, suggesting this was simply for dramatic effect.

Desert Fury has developed a reputation over the decades for what has been read as gay subtext. My own feeling is some critics are putting a bit more into the film than was probably intended, or that any suggestions of sexuality are deliberately ambiguous. The quotation from the dialogue in the Film Comment article, also reproduced in Wikipedia, has been edited in such a way that what is deleted in Eddie Bendix explaining that he was lock out of his previous home, and Johnny Ryan brought him to his rooming house that had available vacancies. That little bit removed from the script tempers the establishment of the partnership of Eddie and Johnny. More to the point is simply the unnatural possessiveness that Fritzi feels about Paula, and that Johnny expresses about Eddie. The characters is Desert Fury fail out controlling the lives of others because they are are unable to control their own, most literally in the film's climax. The sometimes unexpressed sexual aspect of possessiveness is central to screenwriter Robert Rossen's last film, Lilith (1964), made when the Production Code was on its last legs. But as long as some observers are going to argue about innuendos within Desert Fury, an overlooked signifier would be the suits Eddie and Johnny wear in the film's opening. Johnny is wearing a single-breasted jacket, while Eddie's is double-breasted - read into that what you will.

My other problem with Desert Fury is that Lizabeth Scott looks too old to convincingly play a nineteen year old young woman. She was 26 at the time, with 41 year old Mary Astor appearing a shade young to be her mother. Otherwise, this is the one time Scott is not the femme fatale. With his pencil thin mustache, John Hodiak reminds me of one of Tex Avery's cartoon wolves, ready to howl at the sight of the next rotoscoped babe. Burt Lancaster, still relatively new to film, is best when he bares his famous choppers before giving Hodiak a much deserved beating. Taken on its own terms, Desert Fury is quite fun to watch, even if one can't understand how Scott and Lancaster can romantically view a small town dominated by two giant smokestacks.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:48 AM

February 19, 2019

So Dark the Night

so dark the night poster.jpg

Joseph H. Lewis - 1946
Arrow Academy BD Region A

For the benefit of those who may be less familiar with the filmmaker, Joseph H. Lewis was nicknamed "Wagon wheel Joe" for his composition of shots through wagon wheels in his westerns. While there are some wagon wheels as props in So Dark the Night, Lewis finds other ways of inserting frames within the camera frame. There are shots through fences, tree branches, a fireplace, a clothes line, and lots of windows. The final minutes of the film might even be read as a visual pun, Lewis' joke on his own visual style, on shots and frames.

A famous Parisian detective, Cassin, takes his first vacation in eleven years. He goes to a small, provincial village where he attracts the attention of the hotel proprietor's daughter, Nanette. Not everyone is pleased, especially the farmer who has claimed engagement to the woman since childhood. There is also the significant difference in age. The detective's vacation is interrupted when the woman and the farmer are found murdered.

So Dark the Night must have been experienced as "So Strange the Movie" by an audience that had no idea what to expect. The very chipper Inspector Cassin is walking down a very sunny Paris street, exchanging pleasantries with a shoeshine boy and a girl selling flowers. The scene is introduced with tracking shots of Cassin's legs. The lightness of tone continues with Cassin's visit to the police station prior to leaving Paris, and Nanette admiring the chauffeured limousine that brings Cassin to the hotel. At this point, Lewis gives a brief stylistic shout-out to Sergei Eisenstein with a montage of close-ups of parts of the limo. Lewis returns to lateral tracking shots plus dolly shots with the camera moving in on a character for emphasis. But the film that began cheerfully becomes an increasingly creepy murder mystery.

So obscure the cast! If the names of most of the actors in So Dark the Night are unknown, you aren't alone. Steven Geray usually belongs in the category of "that guy, who was in that movie". As Cassin, this was Geray's only starring role, scrunched in between brief appearances in Gilda, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and To Catch a Thief among the more famous titles, as well as a slew of television episodes through the Fifties and Sixties. If Geray did get a screen credit, it was usually at the lower end of the credit roll. Michiline Cheirel, Nanette, had brief supporting roles in Carnival in Flanders and Hold Back the Dawn. Coincidentally, both actors were in William Castle's The Crime Doctor's Gamble a year later. Much of the casting seems to have been a roundup of European emigres on the Columbia Pictures lot, so the accented English might not be French, but it is honest. The cult performance artist, Brother Theodore, billed here with his real name of Theodore Gottlieb, shows up as the town's hunchback. There is no particular reason for the character to be a hunchback, as if he strayed off the set of another movie.

In case it matters to anyone, I've corresponded with three of the four people involved with the supplements. The only person who remains innocent is Imogen Sara Smith who provides an overview on Lewis' career at Columbia Pictures. I'm more familiar with Smith's commentary tracks on several films, with Desert Fury on deck for next week. As usual, she's very informative about Lewis and the production of So Dark the Night. The other Smith, whom I've exchanged notes with from the days when this blog began percolating, Farran Smith Nehme shares the commentary track with Glenn Kenny. Kenny goes over Lewis' early career in poverty row westerns and the critical reevaluation of Lewis' career, while Nehme is extremely helpful in identifying several of the cast members. While their commentary is casual, it is also well-prepared. The booklet notes by David Cairns offer an entertaining examination of Lewis' visual style here. The blu-ray is from a 2K restoration and looks dazzling enough to easily belie the modest budget, probably no more than the $175,000 the previous year's My Name is Julia Ross.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:38 AM

February 12, 2019

Blue Movie


Wim Verstappen - 1971
Cult Epics two-disc all region DVD/BD set

There is this shot repeated in Blue Movie that neatly sums up viewing the film almost fifty years after its production. The cinematography is by Jan de Bont, early in his career. The camera is completely overhead, looking straight down, on two couples having sex. They are seen on a green surface, within a circular frame. The effect is as if viewing some form of life under a microscope. Voyeurism is a theme that pops up in the films by Dutch filmmakers Wim Verstappen and Pim de la Parra, that of both their films characters, and by implication, the audience.

Known collectively as Pim and Wim, the two set out to prove that Dutch filmmakers could succeed in the international market back in the late Sixties. Blue Movie was one of the films Verstappen co-wrote as well as directed, a 16mm production designed to compete with soft core films of the time. What temporarily got in the way of the film's initial release was that the Netherlands had an older rating system that had not caught up with the more liberalized standards and self-imposed adult only ratings in the U.S. and some other western countries. Blue Movie changed how films were rated in the Netherlands. That it made over a million dollars helped pave the way for other erotically charged Dutch films, especially those by newcomer Paul Verhoeven.

Those who saw Blue Movie weren't there for the nonsensical story. Michael, just out on parole, moves into an apartment in a huge, anonymous building. Michael's crime was having sex with an underage girl. Lonely, Michael gets to know some of his female neighbors by "borrowing" a cup of sugar (a plot device that was creaky even then). Michael becomes very popular with several of the women in the building, but finds himself falling in love with a young single mother. His parole officer, whose attention to Michael borders on the homoerotic, shows up at inopportune times. Initially not putting any effort in gainful employment, Michael becomes an entrepreneur of sex shows and films.

Whether one finds the antics in Blue Movie erotic is up to the eye of the individual viewer. Most of the scenes of sex are played for fun. For myself, I think I have seen more than enough of star Hugo Metsers nude. It may be to the film's credit that the actresses have an everyday kind of attractiveness, neither glamorized or artificially enhanced.

Putting Blue Movie into historical context are the generous supplements. The first is an interview with Wim Verstappen prior to the film's release in 1971. Producer Pim de la Parra speaks about making Blue Movie as part of the introduction to the series of Dutch films shown at the Cinematheque Francaise in 2018. An interview with Hugo Metsers, Jr. includes an anecdote of the son discovering Blue Movie by accident when he was ten years old. There is also a brief documentary on the Eye Film Institute, responsible for the restoration of several vintage Dutch films. The three supplements from 2018 were produced by Cult Epic's Nico B, who has made several of these almost forgotten Dutch films available for a wider audience.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:04 AM

February 01, 2019


piercing poster.jpg

Nicolas Pesce - 2019
Universal Pictures

Piercing is based on a novel by the Japanese author Ryu Murakami. While the name is more familiar to those with an interest in contemporary Japanese literature, more may be know his name through the most famous, or perhaps infamous, film adaptation of his novel, Audition. As a filmmaker of body horror, Nicolas Pesce is not as extreme as Takashi Miike, but there is enough going here to make most viewers feel uncomfortable once the two main characters meet.

Pesce, who also wrote the screenplay, transposes the action from a contemporary Japanese city of 1994 to a fictionalized New York City that appears to be mid 1970s. The first giveaway is the close-up of the push-button phone. There is also the double-breasted suit worn by Christopher Abbott, and telephone booth across the street from a hospital to serve as reminders of a past time. Pesce also announces the influence of giallo with the use of Italian composer Bruno Nicolai's music during the opening credits. For the most part Piercing takes place in a dark hotel room and an equally dimly lit apartment, with designer and the prostitute having a tenuous relationship to the outside world.

Much of the novel consists of interior monologues, including disassociation, of the two characters, only sliver appears in the film. Like Audition, this is about a man whose plan for a specific kind of relationship with a woman is upended by the woman. The man and woman in Murakami's novel both have childhood traumas that are both complimentary but also literally tear the two apart. The motivations in the film are not given that kind of clear explanation. While Murakami takes a look at class and culture in Japan, Pesce's film might be best described as an exercise in mood and style, about two people trying to control themselves and each other, most explicitly through psycho-sexual games.

Mia Wasikowska might not have been considered as a Hitchcock blonde, especially with her short, Dutch boy style hair. It may not have been intentional on Pesce's part, but by having her character as a blonde, she recalls the Hitchcock film about childhood trauma, Marnie. The difference is that the prostitute, Jackie, refuses to let herself be a victim to the men who are her clients, even when hired to be submissive. While Marnie is disturbed by the color red, Jackie is immersed in a color that might even be described as Deep Red, the interior of her apartment, with the theme by Goblin also part of the soundtrack.

Pesce is an admitted fan of horror films. The tracking shot in that long, dark hotel corridor recalls Dario Argento, while the use of split screens was probably influenced by Brian De Palma. While the buildup slowly builds up the feeling of impending dread, the entire films runs slightly more than eighty minutes. There is also some witty use of several familiar pop songs, especially the mopey "Bluer than Blue", as part of the soundtrack. Ultimately, the worst of horrors are that which adults inflict on children, while those between adults are only skin deep.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:08 AM