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April 28, 2020

The General Died at Dawn

general died at dawn.jpg

Lewis Milestone - 1936
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In The General Died at Dawn, Gary Cooper plays an American gunrunner in China known only by his last name, O'Hara. The character was inspired by the real life British born Morris Abraham Cohen, known primarily for his association with Sun Yet-sen and also having been appointed as a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army. Cohen was 49 at the time of the film's release. I would assume that for Paramount, the idea of a Jewish action hero would be a hard sell for the American public, but I'd like to imagine an alternate version with Paul Muni in the lead.

I also have to wonder if the film, with its setting in war-torn China, was previously considered for Josef von Sternberg. The setting is exotic, if not as baroque as in a von Sternberg film. The production was the year after von Sternberg left Paramount. There is also the connection of Gary Cooper as the star, appearing six years earlier in von Sternberg's Morocco.

The General Died at Dawn is still of interest primarily in terms of some of the visual innovations. A shot of a white door knob dissolves into a shot of a white pool ball. There is use of the split screen with two characters in conversation while each corner of the screen peels back to reveal additional action of other characters. Even the opening credit sequence is imaginative with the credits over the sails of Chinese boats floating across the screen. Meanwhile, the film's corniest line from playwright Clifford Odets, with Gary Cooper informing Madeleine Carroll that they could have made beautiful music together, was first uttered here.

So we have Gary Cooper and his pet monkey trying to smuggle a big belt full of money to a group of rebels fighting the warlord General Yang. The money is to be used to purchase guns. Coop has to not only outwit Yang, the general of the film's title, but also assorted low-lifes including a hoarse voiced William Frawley. Madeleine Carroll is caught between her love for Coop and her loyalty towards her father, a relationship that appears emotionally incestuous.

Contemporary viewers might be put off by having several members of the cast in yellow face, notably Akim Tamiroff as General Yang. While that aspect can be charitably considered as a product of its time, the film is otherwise well cast with Asian, if not specifically Chinese, actors as Chinese characters. Also, none of the Chinese characters speaks pidgin English, and the couple of racist characters have what's coming to them.

Lewis Milestone doesn't have a reputation as a visual stylist, and perhaps credit should go to cinematographer Victor Milner, who received an Oscar nomination for his work. The shot that first introduces the viewer to Madeleine Carroll is of her legs, and a cigarette in hand. There is also Carroll and Cooper's first onscreen meeting, with Cooper seen as the reflection on a full length mirror in a train's compartment. There is also one unusually graphic depiction of murder that I would not have expected in a film made at that time. As is to be expected from Kino Lorber's releases from the Universal vault, this is a nicely rendered blu-ray from new 4K master.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track alternating between film historian Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda. Gambin discusses the visual innovations introduced by Milestone, and how The General Died at Dawn fits in with other films starring Gary Cooper. Alda talks about the first time she saw Gary Cooper on screen and a bit about his personal life. The commentary track seems more aimed towards the casual film fan. While Gambin also discusses how the politics of Milestone and Odets found expression in the film, viewers wanting a deeper dive will have to look elsewhere.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:48 AM

April 20, 2020

Why Don't You Just Die?

Die two.jpg

Papa, sdokhni
Kirill Sokolov - 2019
Arrow Films

The one thing that is best remembered about Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain is the fight to the death between Paul Newman and Wolfgang Kieling. The audience is reminded that not only is it not only not easy to kill somebody, but that the human body as well as the urge to live can be surprisingly resilient. Russian filmmaker Kiril Sokolov has taken that one scene, indirectly, and made an entire feature where all the main characters at least temporarily survive body blows, maiming, knife wounds and shotgun blasts. Black comedy does not come much darker than this.

A young man with a Batman hoodie, Matwei, shows up at an apartment holding a hammer. The hammer is hidden behind his back when the apartment door is open. An older man, large, and with a completely shaved head, answers. He is Andrei, father of Olya, the young woman Matwei says he is to meet at the apartment. The two eye each other suspiciously. Andrei reveals himself to be a detective as well as a highly concerned parent. And why does Matwei have a hammer with him? Is it really for a friend?

Most of the action takes place in Andrei's apartment, primarily in the living room which turns into the main battlefield. There are flashbacks revealing more about Andrei, Olya and Matwei. This is a story about double crosses and toxic family relationships. Even when the characters try to do the right thing, someone get killed by accident. The Russian title translates as "Daddy, die", but the English title makes more sense when you have four characters literally fighting for their personal survival.

This blood drenched film is hardly subtle, although I would recommend that viewers pay some attention to details in the background in addition to the activity in front of the camera. Sokolov's influences are easy to detect in some cases with his music queues - part of the score sounds like a variation of the Shostakovich waltz used in Eyes Wide Shut, while another scene echoes the music associated with Italian Westerns. Some of the crashing and bashing is rendered in slow motion. There are also little digressions, as when the viewer is shown how handcuffs can or can not be unlocked with a bobby pin. While several reviews of the film from its festival run cite the influence of Quentin Tarantino due to the depiction of violence, I would say Why Don't You Just Die? has more in common with the Coen brothers' Blood Simple in the basic setup as well as their other films with their darkly comic, and often accidental, deaths and injuries.

It should be noted that Why Don't You Just Die? was to get a theatrical release until current events made that impossible. Instead, the film is getting a VOD release today, but will also have a blu-ray release tomorrow. I've only been able to see the film and can not comment on the blu-ray, but my past experience is that for those interested in a deeper dive, Arrow's commentary tracks and extras are usually excellent.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:39 AM

April 16, 2020

The Golem: How He Came into the World

the golem.jpg

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam
Paul Wegener - 1920
Kino Classics BD Region A

A century after its initial release, what does one make of The Golem. One could read the final scene as a variation of a cliche, where the big lug literally falls for a little blonde girl. Although in this case, the big lug is an artificially created guy made from clay whose mindless destruction is ended by a child who innocently plucks the source of the monster's power. The rabbi who created the golem did so as an act of protecting the Jews in the medieval ghetto of Prague from oppression done in the name of Christianity. As the "death" of the golem is not witnessed by any of the ghetto residents, it is attributed as an act of God. How ironic that the creature, created initially as the protector of Jews ends up threatening their destruction, only to have the ghetto saved by a tiny shiksa. A subplot involves the Rabbi's daughter infatuated with the squire from the royal court, with the squire coming to a bad end at the hands of the golem. If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that interfaith relationships can be fatal.

This is, at least for now, the most definitive release of Paul Wegener's film. It was stitched together primarily from two film sources, with tinting based on an Italian release version. The blu-ray is also derived from a 4K digital restoration, with only one shot that showed serious decomposition that I noticed. Kino has also provided a choice of three music tracks, all on the avant-garde side. My choice of soundtrack was perhaps the most experimental by Lukasz Poleszak. Not just music, but synthesized sounds and voices weaving in and out in this track. In any case, all three music tracks provide a radical departure from the traditional solo piano or small group that usually accompanies a silent film. If that's not enough, there is also the U.S. release version with its own soundtrack, and a comparison of the newly restored version of The Golem with an earlier restoration that also has commentary by Tim Lucas.

Lucas' commentary track on the seventy-five minute version, the most complete version at this time, traverses various threads in the history of the film. Included is discussion on Wegener's 1915 film and the actor/director's subsequent career, as well as a history of the story that was the inspiration for Wegener. It may be unavoidable that some of the information in the commentary will be familiar to both fans and serious scholars of horror movies and/or popular culture, such as how the folk tale was inspiration for Frankenstein both in literature and film, the latter with the connection of having cinematographer Karl Freund taking his expertise to Universal when he moved to Hollywood. The more detailed examinations of Wegener's career on film and stage are in German - and certainly of interest due to Wegener being a non-Jew with an interest in Jewish subject matter, who maintained a public career in Germany during World War II, returning to the stage in 1945 with a staging of the play Nathan the Wise in the title role.

The blu-ray should be of interest even to those familiar with the story as the images have much detail that has been unclear in the previous film and home video versions. Even if several narrative tropes are overly familiar, this is the film where they originated. Certainly, the sight of Wegener as the golem, bulked up and with a thick pageboy haircut will more likely amuse than terrify. Viewers jaded with CGI special effects may roll their eyes at some of the scenes here, but there is delight in seeing those dancing airborne flames while the rabbi makes his incantation to bring the golem to life.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:05 AM