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July 28, 2020

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands


Norman Foster - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Actor turned director Norman Foster honed his directorial skills churning out the yellow face adventures of Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan. The films were produced with modest budgets and short shooting schedules. Foster found his way into Orson Welles' circle and he was entrusted with filming part of the never completed It's All True, the project pushed on Welles in the name of pan-American friendship in 1942, taking Welles away from R.K.O. and The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles also entrusted Foster with directing Journey into Fear, a film much more entertaining than some have claimed, and similar to the 1951 version of The Thing, a film subject to debate regarding how much of the directorial credit is to be taken at face value.

It would appear that everything of value that Norman Foster took from his past work was used in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. A brisk eighty minutes long, there's no dawdling around to establish place or characters. Burt Lancaster, unshaven, disheveled, world weary and volatile, is sufficiently annoyed at the barkeep in a London bar at closing time to sock him in the jaw. Unfortunately, the barkeep is knocked dead. Accidental death or not, seedy Robert Newton has witnessed the incident and calls for the neighborhood toughs to get a hold of Lancaster. On the lam, outwitting the police in part by using his acrobatic skills, Lancaster hides in the apartment of Joan Fontaine.

That chase in the beginning shows the influence of Welles. It is a series of traveling shots, including several crane shots looking down at the street. Foster emphasizes the space between Lancaster and those who pursue him. There's depth of focus. Just that part of the film, from its introduction of Lancaster to the point where he makes a truce with Fontaine as her unexpected and unwanted guest, with its use of fog and shadows, can serve as a text for explaining the look of film noir. Robert Newton reappears, like the proverbial bad penny, to blackmail Lancaster and later, Fontaine. Any border between horror and film noir is erased in the facial expressions and use of lighting on Newton's face in close-up as he threatens Fontaine.

It's not all darkness. After a bit of cajoling, Lancaster talks Fontaine into a walk through a zoo. At one point they are in front of a cage with a chimpanzee. The chimpanzee makes a face which Lancaster imitates. I am unaware of any previous comparisons, but I was reminded of a line written as I recall written by Pauline Kael, reviewing a much later Lancaster film, the western Valdez is Coming. One of those weird bits of flotsam that stays in the memory, with Kael describing Lancaster as simian in that film.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was Lancaster's debut as his own producer. From the perspective of his his career, his choices for roles for himself and choices off collaborators has a strange consistency. As in this film, Lancaster more often than not plays flawed characters, sometimes deeply unlikable men such as in Sweet Smell of Success as the gossip columnist. At the same time, within the same film if possible, Lancaster loved to show off his body, up through his nude scene after hitting fifty in The Swimmer. There is a beefcake moment in Kiss . . . where Lancaster, jailed following another near murderous outburst, is stripped of his shirt, and strapped and restrained to be whipped in prison. Lancaster would seem to have no problem taking second billing to the more veteran Joan Fontaine here, or later two actors he admired, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. When it came to directors, the relationships with those hired by Lancaster would occasionally be more problematic with firings of several respected filmmakers, often replaced by the more cooperative John Frankenheimer or Sydney Pollack. All the more baffling is that for his telling directors what to do (Franenheimer once told of being lifted around by Lancaster with instructions on camera placement), Lancaster never took to direction after a couple attempts about fifteen years apart.

Norman Foster could well be another director worthy of further research. His career is even more idiosyncratic than that of another former Welles associate, Richard Wilson. At the very least, Foster has directed two noted entries in film noir - Kiss . . and Woman On the Run (1950), and the amiable western, Rachel and the Stranger starring sister-in-law Loretta Young. Foster would appear to be going back to his directorial roots in shooting multiple television episodes for Walt Disney's adventured of Zorro, and most famously, Davy Crockett, mini-series before that term was invented, that eventually were re-edited for theatrical release. Of possible interest would be the handful of films Foster made in Mexico for the local audience, three with Ricardo Montalban. Of further interest is that the source novel is by the British novelist Gerald Butler, who also provided the source novel for On Dangerous Ground, and that this story about a man on the run had its screenplay handled by three blacklisted and temporarily exiled writers - Ben Maddow, Walter Bernstein and Leonardo Bercovici. Bernstein and Maddow would work again with Lancaster on two later films produced by the star, The Train and The Unforgiven respectively.

Film historian Jeremy Arnold offers a generally informative, well prepared and cleanly recorded commentary track. What I found most useful was the explanation of how mobile sets were used to make the Universal studio London look bigger than it was, and for use in those overhead traveling crane shots that open the film. Arnold also discusses the film's Orson Welles connection lightly with Norman Foster, but in greater detail regarding cinematographer Russell Metty, with a mention that Gregg Toland was initially set to do the filming. There is also the pointing out of several of the lesser know supporting players as well as notes on how Joan Fontaine and Robert Newton were cast. This is one of the better commentary tracks for a film that is best known for its wonderfully lurid title.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:45 AM

July 21, 2020

Michael Winner and Oliver Reed: Two Films

the system.jpg

The System/The Girl-Getters
Michael Winner - 1964


Hannibal Brooks
Michael Winner - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Michael Winner directed six films with Oliver Reed. Of those six, the four released between 1964 and 1969 are the ones of most interest. The last two films have Reed reduced to supporting roles. Both the director and the actor benefited from this collaboration as it brought greater critical and commercial attention to each.

For Reed, The System is a transitional film with a role that has echoes of previous work. He appears here as Tinker, a photographer at a British beach resort town, who uses his photography to meet young women on holiday and arrange for some of them to hook up with his friends who also have summer jobs. As his nickname suggests, Tinker has created the mechanics for a system for he and his pals to have summertime romances. As in Beat Girl and The Party's Over, Reed plays the rebel leader, either by design or default, yet simultaneously seems removed from the group, carrying with him a sense of emotional distance. In her interview on the blu-ray, actress Jane Merrow discusses this sense of reserve of Reed suggesting that in this film there were similarities between the actor and his role.

The System did well enough for Winner to make two more even more commercially successful films with Reed, The Jokers, co-starring Michael Crawford, and I'll Never Forget What'sisname with Orson Welles, also reputed to be the first mainstream English language film to drop the F-bomb. The fourth film, Hannibal Brooks was less successful commercially and critically. Both Winner and Reed bounced back, Reed first with Ken Russell's Women in Love, and Winner remaking himself as primarily an action director who in a couple years would have a lucrative, and sometimes ludicrous, collaboration with Charles Bronson.

I had seen The System under its US release title, The Girl-Getters, in 1966. While the film did get rave reviews, the initial first run release was limited. It was not unusual for art and independent films at that time to skip Denver at that time. I saw The Girl-Getters as a supporting feature for Roger Corman's The Wild Angels. At that time, it was not unusual for some first run films to play as part of double features in Denver's downtown theaters. I was fourteen that summer, and unaware that Winner's film was already two years old, but I liked what I saw.

As a teenager, I was so caught up with the bad boy behavior of Tinker and his posse that I missed the point of story. While the lads are calming to be rebelling against conformity and middle class values, it's essentially summertime fun before returning to their families or school for the rest of the year. Tinker pursues a model, Nicola, and finds himself thinking of a more domestic life only to discover that Nicola has chosen a life more itinerant than his own.

Winner smartly cast the film with relatively unknown actors who were age appropriate, notably including David Hemmings. Reed was twenty-five when the film was made, but his stocky build, plus his already prodigious drinking, made him look a bit older. The film was shot during the summer of 1963, with The Beatles topping the charts in England. Too late to hire them as the rock band that briefly appears in the film, Winner did get the second most popular Liverpool band, The Searchers, to record the title song. Much of the credit for the look of the film goes to cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, just a couple films away from working with Richard Lester and John Schlesinger. Australian film historian Stephen Vagg provided the commentary track which quotes from Michael Winner and Oliver Reed's respective autobiographies, as well as anecdotes from surviving cast members.

In discussing the casting of The System, Stephen Vagg reviews Michael Winner's ability to spot future talent. As it turned out, Winner, like several other people, was overly optimistic about stardom for Michael J. Pollard. This is a World War II film, still a viable commercial genre at the time of production. Second billed, after Oliver Reed, in Hannibal Brooks, Pollard basically has a glorified supporting role as an American P.O.W. captured by the Germans, always on the lookout for a way to escape. Reed plays Lance Corporal Brooks, who is given the job of looking after an elephant, Lucy, at the Munich zoo. After a bombing in Munich substantially destroys the zoo, Brooks is assigned, along with two German soldiers, to escort Lucy to a zoo in Innsbruck, Austria, by train. Denied use of the train by a top office, Brooks is forced to walk Lucy to Innsbruck. Plans change, with Brooks attempting to get himself and Lucy over the Alps and into neutral Switzerland.

The story, created with Winner, was inspired by Tom Wright's own wartime experience caring for elephants as a P.O.W. What gets in the way is that the concept is too whimsical for a serious film that takes time for Brooks to lament about the loss of life that takes place in wartime. Reed and the elephant, Aida, do most of the literal and emotional heavy lifting here. Pollard's casting seems more of a distraction, neither sufficiently comic nor convincingly serious as needed. Based on the reviews at the time of release, there was consensus that in spite of the weaknesses, there was just enough in Hannibal Brooks to make consider it likable. Minus the elephant, Hannibal Brooks has most of the expected cliches to be found in a film about an Allied soldier escaping from Nazis. I did like the dreamy score by Francis Lai. The film is also notable as the first of Michael Winner's collaborations with cinematographer Robert Paynter, who had previously worked exclusively with documentaries.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:10 AM

July 07, 2020


Revenge In The House Of Usher (6).png

Revenge in the House of Usher
A.M. Franck (jesus Franco and Olivier Mathot) - 1983-88
Redemption Films BD Region A

The history of the making of Neurosis is almost as tortured as any of the characters to be found in the films of Jesus (Jess) Franco. The original film was badly received at a Spanish film festival in 1983. Franco followed up with an even less successful recut in 1985. Finally, actor/director Olivier Mathot revised the story once again with about fifteen minutes of new footage. Except for one glaring non sequitur, a scene involving a supporting character, this final version is surprisingly cohesive in both its narrative and visual elements.

The original film was very loosely inspired by Poe, bizarrely credited here as Edgard Allen Poe, with an umlaut over the letter e. The film was shot in and around a large castle in Andalusia, Spain, tan and arid. While the castle interior is dark, often barely illuminated, the exteriors are oppressively bright. Eric Usher is an aging doctor, exiled due to his unorthodox research and methods, visited by his former student, Alan Harker. Most viewers will recognize some of the the literary liberties taken by Franco in his names for his characters. Usher is trying to revive the life of his daughter, Melissa, with transfusions of blood from unwilling young women kidnapped by his servants Mathieu and the one-eyed Morpho. As Harker discovers, Usher appears to be suffering from a mental breakdown, battling the ghosts from his past. An for inexplicable reasons, whomever was responsible for the English dub of this film had Harker's name pronounced as Hacker.

For some, the highpoint may be the inclusion of footage from Franco's first horror film, The Awful Dr. Orloff, repurposed here as a flashback. The more generous viewer will overlook that the facially deformed assistant, Morpho, in Neurosis played by Olivier Mathot does not quite look like the Morpho of the 1962 film. Those who have even casually followed the career of Jesus Franco will revisit Howard Vernon in his first of many collaborations with the director. As usual with Franco, there is his other familiar collaborators, muse Lina Romay, Antonio Mayans, and composer Daniel White who appears as Dr. Seward. Franco also served as his own editor and cinematographer on the original production making this one of his more personal projects. It should be noted that Olivier Mathot has also appeared as an actor in other Franco films, making his participation more fitting.

Neurosis is more likely to be appreciated by those familiar with Jesus Franco. Tim Lucas provides the commentary track here, providing information on the production history including comparisons where possible between the three different versions. As might be expected, Lucas seems to leave no stone unturned, discussing various literary and cinematic connections, primarily concerning Franco, but also regarding the participation of Francoise Blanchard in Mathot's footage. There are two language options, with the film post-dubbed in English and French. What makes this of some interest are some differences in the word choices indicated in the subtitles as well as two different folk verses used in the same scene.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:03 AM