A TOAST TO DOLEMITE (1975)

April 26, 2016

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“These rhymes and raps that I have were told 50 years ago by the beer joint and liquor store wise men who used to sit out in front of the store, drinking beer, lying, and talking shit. What I did, I picked them up. I even gave older winos money to tell me those tales. And then I’d take them and freshen them up.” – Rudy Ray Moore

Rudy Ray Moore was an X-rated griot, a traveling storyteller who popularized beer-joint folklore in black communities throughout the 1970s. His routine, in which he told outrageously filthy tales in singsong rhyme, was known as “toasting”, a pivotal influence on hip hop. Like the rappers he influenced (“He’s the greatest rapper of all time” – Snoop Dogg), Moore was intent on channeling the personalities of the neighborhoods he grew up in  (he was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and bounced to Milwaukee and Cleveland as a teen). Wanting to expand his reach after his “toast” albums became underground bestsellers, he started writing a screenplay based on one of his characters – the exaggeratedly macho gangster/pimp/loverman Dolemite. With no one to fund him, he saved money from his non-stop touring and made the feature for around $100,000 of his own money. It is an outrageous, hilarious comedy that never tries to cater to white audiences. Dolemite became famous for the ineptitude of its technical shortcomings – boom mics dipping into frame and the clumsy martial arts choreography – but for black audiences it was a rare depiction of a familiar character, like spending 90 minutes with one of their wisecracking drunk uncles. As writer and performance artist Darius James put it, “Unlike most of the commercial cinema’s Black-market movies, which rely on the story formulas of their honkoid counterparts, the movies of Rudy Ray Moore are rooted in the structure, imagery, and motifs of Black oral narrative.” After decades of circulating in faded dupes, the enterprising exploitation experts at Vinegar Syndrome unearthed a 35mm negative, and scanned and restored Dolemite in 2K. The resulting Blu-ray, out today, is so bright and clean it’s like seeing it for the first time.

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Dolemite opens the film in prison, having been framed for possession of drugs and stolen furs by local Los Angeles gangster Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, also the director). The madam of the local brothel, Queen Bee (Lady Reed, Moore’s protege and tour partner), advocates on Dolemite’s behalf, and the warden lets him free  if he will help take down the increasingly powerful Green. Dolemite agrees, and he’s loosed back into the world — an improbably pudgy dynamo equally adept with a karate chop as a caress. He immediately sets on bringing down Green – by forcibly taking back his old night club and turning it into a ribald revue of black entertainers (headlined by himself, of course). He is well prepared for an attack by Green’s gang because his loyal army of prostitutes have been taking martial arts lessons (hence the poster calling them “an all girl army of kung fu killers”). There is no way the mythical Dolemite isn’t coming out on top (in more ways than one).

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The movie is a showcase for Moore’s unpredictable wordplay (“I don’t wear no cotton drawers” was my senior quote for my high school yearbook), but the directorial duties were handed off to Martin, who had little interest in the production. It was his directorial debut, but as one of the more established actors, he felt the feature was below him, and didn’t put much effort into composing or choreographing images (hence the proliferation of boom mics on-screen in the theatrical release). It was a real amateur, independent production, and it was almost everyone’s first job, all the way from the writer,  director and DP (Nicholas von Sternberg, Josef’s son, who was just out of college) to the makeup artist (Marie Carter). The film was a testing ground, and it can lead to scenes of stilted airlessness as well as inspired lunacy, set against fascinating Los Angeles locations (it is all parking lots, funeral homes, dingy apartments).The majority of the cast were non-professionals, many clearly uncomfortable on screen. But Moore was a born entertainer.

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Rudy Ray Moore is an ungainly screen presence, his body a soft plush toy. 48-years-old at the time of shooting, he walks tentatively, as if he had knee trouble. His hilariously unconvincing kung-fu battles are as distractingly edited as a late-stage Steven Seagal vehicle. But this isn’t supposed to be a well-oiled narrative machine. It’s a movie “toast”, sending up contemporary action movies (blaxploitation and otherwise) in a series of escalating absurdities that Moore presides over as MC. As unimposing as Moore’s athleticism was, his voice had retained its mischievous power. It was a booming instrument that Moore could slide up and down the scale, speeding up the tempo as he closed in on a punchline. In the final nightclub sequence, there is a taste of his famous “Signifying Monkey” toast, in which a clever simian continually outsmarts the physically superior lion in a competition of deviant one-upsmanship too crass to quote here (the lyrics are over here).

Viewing it for the first time since I was a dumb teen,  Dolemite retains its ability to elicit shock-laughs from Moore’s absurdist runs (“When I see a ghost, I cut the MFer”), and the clarity of the Blu-ray brings out heretofore blurry details in the Los Angeles backgrounds, like the odd beauty of a Ralph’s grocery store sign above an empty parking lot.   The movie was (and remains) critically derided, but it was a hit among black audiences, making $12 million according to Jet Magazine. In 2000, Moore told Vibe magazine that  “Black actors have always had to do roles that were unfavorable to us as a people. So when I came along, I picked a satire that we could enjoy ourselves — not be kicked in the ass. I reversed it. And because Dolemite was so hard-hitting, it worked. People lined the streets to see it.”

SUNSHINE NOIR: CUTTER’S WAY (1981)

April 19, 2016

“I have seen people after the war that came from concentration camps, they were violated in their bodies and their minds, and they were contaminated by the violence. They became violent themselves. This is what I wanted to show in Cutter’s Way.” – Ivan Passer

Cutter’s Way is a sickly film, its characters hungover or half in the bag. They have never recovered from the Vietnam War, either from the physical scars from fighting or the guilt from avoiding it. Cutter (John Heard) is the wounded veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, a ranting paranoiac lost in his own head. His wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) nurses the loss of her pre-war husband with drink. Cutter’s best friend is Bone (Jeff Bridges), a lithe golden god who makes a living as a gigolo and occasional boat salesman.  The trio’s blurred vision focuses upon the corpse of a young girl, who they suspect was murdered by local tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Cord begins to exert an outsized role in their personal mythology, a symbol of the system, the American way of life, that has left them on the periphery.

Their amateur investigation is a half-cocked mess, and twists around into a blackmail scheme. Their dream of justice is obscured by the thick haze of the Santa Barbara summer, but whether or not they have found the true killer, they have recovered a modicum of belief, belief which ends in a defining act of violence. United Artists didn’t know what to do with this downbeat drama, and released it with little fanfare in 1981. It has had vocal supporters through the years, foremost among them J. Hoberman, and Twilight Time has released a handsome-looking Blu-ray that should expand its cult.

The film is based on Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, originally to be adapted by Robert Mulligan, and with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter. After that fell apart it was packaged with Mark Rydell and Richard Dreyfuss, but that too failed to proceed. Eventually United Artists settled on the Czech emigre Ivan Passer to direct – whose most famous film was still his Czech New Wave comedy Intimate Lighting (1965). He had made four films in Hollywood since, including the hilarious and harrowing heroin film Born to Win (1971, with a great George Segal performance), but none had eclipsed the reputation of his debut. Passer was available and interested, and United Artists just wanted to get the project off their slate. They insisted that Jeff Bridges take the second lead, since he was in UA’s upcoming surefire hit of Heaven’s Gate. They preferred Richard Dreyfuss for the role of Cutter, but Passer was adamant on casting John Heard, after seeing him in a performance of Othello opposite Dreyfuss. Not wanting to lose a third director, UA let Heard have the title role (the title was changed from Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way after its initial NYC release). The memorable zither-heavy score is by Jack Nitzsche.

Passer’s greatest coup was hiring DP Jordan Cronenweth, who veils Santa Barbara in a jaundiced palette – the city seems to expel Cutter and his cronies as a digestive system expels bile. The look of the film was described pungently by J. Hoberman in his Village Voice review: “Jordan Cronenweth’s accomplished cinematography conveys the essence of rot. Everything is orange-gold and subtly synthetic. The film has the burnished Naugahyde look of a sunset seen through the window of a House of Pancakes.” This “orange-gold” was by Passer’s design. He recalled the working process with Cronenweth to Olivier Père:

 The casting director showed me some TV movies and I was impressed by the work of Jordan. I was stunned when I met him because he was around 40 and he behaved like if he was 90 years old! The slowest person in the world! I learned that he was not able to do more than 6 set-ups a day, so I adjusted and did long shoots which I could intercut. It is always very difficult to control the color in a film. We couldn’t paint things like Antonioni. It was too expensive. So we took out one color, blue. There is no blue in the film, which is difficult in California because of the sky. That forced me to put the camera above the eye level, camera is always looking a little down, and you have the sense there is some aesthetic order in the film. Jordan was a real artist, always surprised by everything, like a child. He never made a shot that needed some reshoot or correction.

The color blue is not entirely eliminated — there is some unavoidable sky when Bone takes the murder victim’s sister out for a sail boat ride — but it is conscientiously avoided. Having to point the film slightly downward makes Cutter’s world ever so slightly more enclosed, a path of escape eliminated. Not that he would be capable of going anywhere.

Cutter is missing an arm, a leg, and an eye, literally half a man. John Heard seems to be channeling some of Iago in his performance, a mercurial manipulator who has both Mo and Bone bend to his will. But he can only bend them so far before they snap, and the cooly self-regarding Bone, played with lizard-slick vanity by Bridges, briefly abandons the cause to to seduce Mo. Mo is in a severe depression throughout the film. She is married to a man she no longer recognizes, in a home that is a memorial to the life she thought she once had. Lisa Eichhorn gives a performance of subdued melancholy, her personality muted and masked by vast quantities of whiskey. She is seeking obliteration and finds it.

Passer was not fond of the original ending of Thornburg’s novel, considering death-by-redneck too similar to that of Easy Rider, so with screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin they created a hallucinatory closer in which Cutter madly crashes Cord’s garden party on horseback, and presumed justice is served. It is almost a burlesque of a happy ending, with its last minute rescue and vanquishing of a sunglasses-clad villain. But by this point “justice” has lost all meaning, what with Cutter’s clumsy blackmail attempts and brutal treatment of Mo, while Bone only shows concern for his moustache. As the final credits roll, Cutter’s violent victory feels very much like a loss.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS: PARIS BELONGS TO US (1962)

April 5, 2016

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“The release of Paris Belongs to Us is a score for every member of the [Cahiers du Cinéma] team – or of our Mafia, if you prefer…For Rivette is the source of many things. The example of Le Coup de Berger, his short film of 1956, made me decide to shoot Les Mistons, and Claude Chabrol to be adventuresome enough to make a full-length film from Le Beau Serge; and at the same time it moved the most prestigious short-subject filmmakers, Alain Resnais and Georges Franju, to try their first full-length films. It had begun. And it had begun thanks to Jacques Rivette. Of all of us he was the most fiercely determined to move.” – François Truffaut

Paris Belongs to Us presents the city as a labyrinthine stage which invites its residents/performers to invent and inhabit vast conspiracies. Mysteries lie behind every open door, if only an intrepid investigator would crack it open and peer behind. It is a paranoid Alice in Wonderland in which its Alice, here called Anne, goes down the rabbit hole with a group of poor actor-artists staging Shakespeare’s Pericles. Every door Anne walks through expands her vision of the world as she is drawn into the macabre fantasy life of artists with too much time on their hands. The film lays out ideas that Rivette would explore the rest of his career, from the nature of performance to the city as game board. Jacques Rivette began shooting Paris Belongs to Us  in 1958, though it would take two years for it to be completed and released in 1961. The 400 Blows and Breathless both made it to cinemas first, and their phenomenal success relegated Paris to the background. The film, like many of Rivette’s features, would become cult cinephile objects, beloved because of their rarity. But that is slowly being rectified, as the legendary 13-hour Out 1 is now streaming on Netflix, while the Criterion Collection has released Paris Belongs to Us on beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions.

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Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is a literature student preparing for her exams whose life is tipped off its axis when she is invited to a party by her brother Pierre (François Maistre). It is a gathering of  artists haunted by the death of Juan, a Spanish musician with links to everyone in the Paris avant-garde theater scene. He was preparing the score for a production of Pericles to be directed by Gerard Lenz (Giani Esposito) when he took his own life. The only recording of Juan’s Pericles compositions has gone missing. Juan had been dating Terry Yordan (François Prevost), a secretive American who is now seeing Gerard, and who may have been involved with the conspiratorially minded Philip, an American journalist exiled due to the McCarthyist blacklist. It is Philip who inducts Anne into this strange tribe, by implying that Juan’s death is not what it seemed, connecting it to a grand international conspiracy, like something out of the Illuminati. Anne is skeptical but curious, and is alarmed at Philip’s insistence that Gerard is in danger. She seeks Juan’s recording in the hopes it will contain some secret to it all, but it just leads her in circles, as well as landing her a role in Pericles. She keeps pushing until the whole edifice collapses upon itself.

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It was Rivette’s first feature, and though he would later rely on his actors to improvise and create his worlds on the fly, Paris Belongs to Us was a more traditionally constructed feature, hewing closely to Rivette and Jean Gruault’s script. Rivette was dissatisfied with the result:

When I began making films my point of view was that of a cinephile, so my ideas about what I wanted to do were abstract. Then, after the experience of my first two films, I realized I had taken the wrong direction as regards methods of shooting. The cinema of mise en scene, where everything is carefully preplanned and where you try to ensure that what is seen on the screen corresponds as closely as possible to your original plan, was not a method in which I felt at ease or worked well. What bothered me from the outset, after I had finally managed to finish Paris Nous Appartient with all its tribulations, was what the characters said, the words they used. I had written the dialogue beforehand with my co-writer Jean Gruault (though I was ninety per cent responsible) and then it was reworked and pruned during shooting, as the film otherwise would have run four-and-a-half hours. The actors sometimes changed a word here and there, as always happens in films, but basically the dialogue was what I had written — and I found it a source of intense embarrassment.

The performances are without filigree, and there can be a sameness of tone and delivery that makes all the characters blend together. Just compare the rehearsal scenes in Out 1 to those in Paris Belongs to Us to see how the shift in how much he put his faith in his performers. Paris Belongs to Us is more fascinating for its complicated blocking, in which characters re-orient themselves in the frame so the focal point keeps shifting. Shooting all over Paris from grotty apartments to abandoned factories, Rivette gets across the concept of Paris as a stage, and one in which his characters get lost inside. Reality is too banal for them, so they invent believable fictions and turn their lives into movies. It is a void from which they choose not to escape.

TAIPEI STORY: A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991)

March 22, 2016

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“This film is dedicated to my father and his generation, who suffered so much for my generation to suffer less. I hope they, the forgotten, can be made unforgettable.” – Edward Yangdirector’s note for A Brighter Summer Day

A Brighter Summer Day is an empathic epic of Taipei in the early 1960s. Four hours long, it is a finely detailed portrait of the families who fled China for Taiwan after the Communist Revolution, unsure if they would ever see their homeland again. It is how Edward Yang grew up, and he felt a responsibility to honor the memory of his friends and family who lived and endured this dislocated life, all under the martial law of the Kuomintang government, who stifled dissent in what became known as the “White Terror”. Freedoms were circumscribed and national loyalties scrambled, so in order to establish an identity many children joined street gangs and imbibed Western pop culture, especially Elvis Presley and rock n’ roll. The film is a succession of atmospheric reveries (Proustian sense memories of school uniform fabrics, clunky radio units and stucco dance halls) punctuated by spasmodic violence, boredom and confusion breeding obscure hatreds. The cast of characters is enormous, and Yang is able to build a real sense of a community, conveying the ragged dignity of alcoholic shop owners, philosophical gang leaders, and the apathetic teen who throws his life away with a few thrusts of the knife. It is a towering achievement, though it has been nearly impossible to see in the United States outside of rep screenings and muddy-looking VCDs. But today the Criterion Collection has issued  A Brighter Summer Day in a beautiful DVD and Blu-ray  from the  4K restoration performed by Criterion in partnership with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. It is one of the essential releases of 2016.

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One of the major news stories from Edward Yang’s youth in Taipei was the stabbing murder of a high school girl. Yang told Michael Berry that “every single one of my classmates and people my age remember this case very clearly. The murder had a huge impact on all of us of my generation. But no one born a few years later has any recollection of any of this. So I wanted to do something to leave behind a record of what happened.” Yang’s impulse was documentary in nature, but since so many years had passed, he had to reconstruct the period imaginatively, and he took exacting care in evoking the era. He spent nearly a year with the child actors, which numbered over sixty, in order to educate them about the time period and the manner in which they should act. This included the putative star Chang Chen (The Assassin, 2046, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), here making his film debut.

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Chang plays Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao Si’r, a middle child of the Zhang family, who immigrated to Taipei from Shanghai following the Communist takeover of the Mainland (Yang was born in Shanghai in 1947, and his family moved to Taipei before the takeover in ’49). The father is a milquetoast government functionary, and his wife is a former schoolteacher who left her accreditation back in China, and can’t get a job. Xiao mostly slides under their radar – his oldest sister (Wang Chuan) is the success story, on an advanced education track with dreams of moving to the United States, while his brother Lao Er (Chang Han) is the black sheep, always drowning in gambling debts. So Xiao skates by, failing out of day school but hanging on in night school, absorbed in movies (including Rio Bravo) and comic books and dabbling with the local gangs. There is also a hopeful romance with Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful, impetuous schoolmate who screen tests for a bumbling local film director. Xiao is a bit of a cipher, and Chang plays him with dreamy reserve, his face a mask. He tries on multiple personalities and none seem to fit, drifting through Yang’s tableau compositions without direction. He seems most comfortable, and most childlike, with his stable of school friends, including the tiny Elvis-wannabe Cat (Wong Chi-Zan), who sings rock covers phonetically since he can’t speak English. He has a high lonesome voice that lends even the most rousing tunes a backbeat of melancholy.

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It is a film that proceeds at a magisterial tempo, enough to absorb every element of the production design of Yang’s intricate long shots. In Figures Traced in Light David Bordwell calculated that the average shot lasts 26 seconds, where his previous features averaged 11-15. This is a film to absorb as much as to watch, and when Yang does cut in to details, it is jarringly impactful. The family radio is a recurring character, an aging antique that the father brought over from China. On the heavily censored Taipei airwaves, the radio only utters banalities, long lists of names for those who passed exams and little else. During his youth, Yang recalled that, “our favorite broadcasts were those of the basketball games. We knew that everything else was bullshit.” In the movie the radio is a lack, a box that emits meaningless noise. When Cat takes it apart and puts it back together, it starts emitting a buzz, one that is equally entertaining as the usual monotone voice that thrummed out of it.

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In interviewing friends and family for the project, Yang was shocked that “out of all the people I interviewed, virtually every single one of them could recall their father being called in for questioning or imprisoned at one time or another during the White Terror.” In the film, Xiao’s father is called out at night for questioning and disappears for days, lost in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. He is forced to sit and write the story of his life, and to include every person he has ever met, it seems. The KMT interrogator acts as a sadistic book reviewer, poking holes in his prose and accusing the father of leaving out important relationships. It is all a perverse kind of torture, an attempt to tire him out until he breaks. This sequences includes Yang’s most artificial, dream-like compositions, of a man seated on an ice block, and vast industrial space centered with a single table and chair. The father is eventually released, only to return to a family that is breaking apart at the seams. Xiao gets expelled from school and descends into criminality, Lao Er continues to gamble, and the realization is dawning that the Communists will not fold, and that their hometown may be lost forever. It is a struggle to endure, but Yang patiently charts the family’s resilience, through tragedies large and small. The closing image has the mother staring at Xiao’s now-useless school uniform as if into a void. It is the end of that dream of normality, and the beginning of more brute realities to come.

BLU-RAY BLUES: I CONFESS and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS

March 8, 2016

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Blu-ray is dead. Long live Blu-ray. Last month a new home video format was released to replace it: Ultra HD Blu-ray, which offers quadruple the resolution of regular old BD. Compatible only with 4K televisions and UHD players, the new format is likely fated to become the niche of a niche. The original Blu-ray was never ensconced in most Americans’ living rooms, instead becoming the choice of collectors, cinephiles, and home theater geeks. DVDs were still too new and cheap, and the rapidly expanding accessibility of streaming video made the relatively expensive Blu-ray an afterthought.  Today Blu-ray and DVD are considered as interchangeable formats, lumped together in narratives of physical media’s decline (according to DEG combined sales dropped by 12% in 2015 – though it is still a six billion dollar business). Anecdotally, it is remarkable how few of my film friends own a BD player, even though their prices have dropped to DVD levels these last few years. As audiences seemed to shrug at BD, Hollywood studios became wary of investing too much in the format. They were nearly twice as expensive to author, so new releases made it to Blu-ray, but library titles would have to wait. It has taken a few years, but the Blu-ray dam is leaking a bit, if not yet broken. Take for instance, the recent releases of Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (via the Twilight Time label, only available for purchase through Screen Archives), and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, released courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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Twilight Time was founded by Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson, two studio employees  who used their connections to license classic movies and start their own label. Redman works as a consultant for Fox restoring film music, and Jamieson was the Senior VP of Marketing for WB Home Video International for 30 years. They release their films in limited edition Blu-ray runs of 3,000 units, with some of their titles selling out within minutes of release. They only sell their Blu-rays through Screen Archives or their own site, so they never receive the discounts of a big chain like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. This causes some grumbling from the buying populace, but if you can get your hands on it,  Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is a gorgeous B&W transfer, filmic and detailed. Director Otto Preminger made it right after his hypnotism noir Whirlpool, and it maintains that film’s somnambulant dread, and returning star Gene Tierney. She is paired with Dana Andrews, reuniting the haunted duo from Preminger’s Laura. Here Andrews plays disgusted police detective Mark Dixon, a proto-Taxi Driver who wishes he could wash the scum off the streets. Except unlike Bickle, he has legal backing to do so, so he takes his inner violence out on the beat.

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Dixon is repeatedly accused of abuse and harassment, and these violent outbursts keep him from being promoted. While interviewing a dopey witness to a mob murder conducted by Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), Dixon pops the witness in the mouth and accidentally kills him. The victim is the estranged husband of Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), a department store model who thinks she can soften Dixon’s hard edges. This is a cold and hard movie in which Dixon, the purported hero, is a rageaholic killer who is coming apart at the seams. Dixon has to cover up his murder, so he investigates as normal and tries to pin it on Scalise – a supercilious gangster who worked in the mob with Dixon’s late father. The film uses a series of repeated low-angle camera set-ups to emphasize the how fate is slowly sneaking up behind Dixon. The crime has to be walked through by the investigators, so he sees everything again, pushing in his own lies when necessary. But in this movie the camera doesn’t lie, and Preminger uses looming close-ups of Andrews’ gradually tightening face of a man imploding in on himself. Twilight Time has also released Preminger’s devastatingly decadent drama Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and the paranoid child kidnapping thriller Bunny Lake is Missing (1965).

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Warner Brothers has been reluctant to license their films to third party distributors, and though they have released a ton of their library onto their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, they had not done a ton with their back catalog for Blu-ray. That is starting to change, as their releases of The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and The Wrong Man would attest. Another of their recent Blu-ray releases is Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), which I watched for the first time this past weekend. Hitchcock considered it one of his weaker films, calling it “rather heavy-handed…lacking in humor and subtlety.” It is a resolutely Spartan production shot in Quebec City about a priest (Montgomery Clift) who hears the confession of his handyman Otto (O.E. Hasse), who admits to the killing of a local lawyer. The priest must abide by his vows and remain silent, but the circumstantial evidence gathered by the police points to him as the main suspect. The priest acts as if he has absorbed and taken on Otto’s guilt for him. The style is as pared down and restrained as Clift’s performance, in which he barely emotes. One has to imagine the thoughts dancing around in his head, of how much anger and anxiety is suppurating in there. But Clift, and Hitchcock, give nothing away. The priest remains an impenetrable cipher throughout. Whether you find this enervating or transfixing depends on your opinion of Montgomery Clift’s eyes. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote that: “In this story, in which the lips of the hero are voluntarily sealed, only these looks give us access to the mysteries of his thought. They are the most worthy and faithful messengers of the soul. We are not to be blamed if the tone of our commentary is somewhat inflated. The majesty of this film invites as much, and leaves little room for humor.” iconfess04

Where the Sidewalk Ends and I Confess were released rather late in DVD’s lifespan (2004 and 2005, respectively), and it took Blu-ray equally as long to get there (I would place the UHD ETA for these in 2046). But with studios like 20th Century Fox and Paramount licensing to boutique distributors like Twilight Time, and Warner Brothers continuing to mine their library through their “Archive”, we are entering a secret golden age of Blu-ray releases. In this fallen age of physical media, I will take what I can get.

ACCUSED: THE WRONG MAN (1957)

February 9, 2016

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The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.

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The screenplay by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail was based on a 1953 LIFE magazine article by Herbert Brean, “A Case of Identity”, which laid out Balestrero’s story. A steady bass player at Manhattan’s Stork Club, with a wife named Rose (Vera Miles) and two children, he had a penchant to play the horses but no debilitating vices. Needing money to help pay for his wife’s dental work, Manny went to his life insurance company to see if he could borrow money off of the policy. While there, a few employees become convinced that Manny is a dead ringer for the man who previously held up their office. They call the cops and Manny becomes the prime suspect. Then a handwriting sample sort of matches, and more witnesses give positive IDs. The case seems insurmountable until he is saved by intrepid grocery owners who capture the real thief, Charles J. Daniell, who soon confesses to be the real purveyor of  the Jackson Heights heists. But Rose cannot handle the stress of the trial, and suffers a nervous breakdown. She is moved to a psychiatric facility, and remains there at the end of the article, though the film has a more qualified happy ending.

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Brean described the evening of the arrest as having “the somnambulistic quality of a bad dream” that, “became a nightmare.” The film hews closely to Brean’s text, from the tone to the performance style. Henry Fonda plays Balestrero as something of an ashen sleepwalker, paralyzed by fear into zombiedom. Brean writes that “Balestrero is a timid man, by his own admission afraid of his own shadow. He has never been in a fight in his life, never carried a weapon, never been arrested, never even received a traffic ticket. As the net of evidence tightened, his mind spun and he did not know what to do or say. ‘When things happen like that and you’re innocent’,  he has said since, ‘you want to shout and scream but you can’t. I don’t know how many ways I tried to say to them I was innocent. They acted as if I was guilty and wanted me to say so.”

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After the police officers walk him from the front door into the police car, the film’s POV becomes severely restricted, Fonda getting suffocated by the law. While in the car, Hitchcock and DP Robert Burks have Balestrero looking right and left, confronted with extreme close-ups of the arresting officers, their impassive mugs impossible to read. While their faces obscure most of the frame, in one shot the blurry silhouette of his wife Rose (Vera Miles) is visible, indicative of his past world that will now be left behind. Hitchcock said “I enjoyed making this film because, after all, that is my greatest fear — fear of the police.” The famous story goes that as a six-year-old, his father sent him to the police station with a note. He had apparently committed some sin, because the cop locked him in jail for five minutes, with little Hitchcock unaware of the reason why, or if he would ever get out. Whether it’s apocryphal or not, it compactly conveys the sense of free-floating terror that motivates many of Hitchcock’s heroes, their mistaken identities or fractured psyches.  Through incompetence or animus the police are able to take your life away. You can see the personality draining out of Balestrero the further he is pushed through the penal system. And already a quiet man, he seems to become stiller, in a permanent state of stunned silence.

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Hitchcock told American Cinematographer that “I want it to look like it had been photographed in New York in a style unmistakably documentary.” He shot on a number of real locations from Balestrero’s story, including his home in Jackson Heights, the Stork Club where he worked, the 110th and Roosevelt Avenue police stations, Ridgewood Felony Court, and the actual courtroom used for Manny’s trial at Queens Felony Court. The Greenmont Sanitarium in Ossining, NY, where Rose Balestrero was sent following her breakdown, is used as a setting for the final third of the film, with Rose’s real nurses hired as extras. Now, as scrupulous as Hitchcock is as at researching the events of the story, at no point does it feel like it is presented in documentary style. There are too many composed shots, including the POV material which crops out most of the world outside Manny’s eyes. Hitchcock is too interested in getting inside Balestrero’s head to stick to an objective reporting of the facts, instead conveying the existential crisis of the Balestrero family. For Manny the world outside the prison has been cropped out, but for Rose her whole life has been blotted out. Her psychiatrist says, “She’s living in another world from hours…a frightening landscape that could be on the dark side of the moon.”

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Henry Fonda had a personal connection to this material. His second wife was Frances Ford Seymour, who he married in 1936, and with whom he had two children: Peter and Jane. Frances suffered from severe depression, and took her own life at the age of 42, in 1950. Fonda biographer Devin McKinney reads the film as a “transfer of anxiety from himself [Manny’s] to his wife. The film’s ‘personal’ element passes from Hitchcock to Fonda, our focus from the director’s passive observation to the character’s encounter with his wife’s depression.” Hitchcock wasn’t happy with this transition, telling Francois Truffaut that “The first weakness was the long interruption in the man’s story in order to show how the wife was gradually losing her mind.” But this transition is one of the film’s great artistic strengths, the terror not isolated or controllable in Manny but spreading outward. Rose starts laughing when all of Manny’s alibis turn up dead, their lives turned into a cosmic joke. She soon shuts down emotionally, convinced the world is conspiring against her family. The terrifying part is that there is no conspiracy, it is simply an average everyday mistake that has evacuated meaning from her life. There is nothing left to believe in, so she disappears inside herself. The pain on Fonda’s face flickers with recognition.

THE GREAT TRAIN CLOBBERING: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973)

January 12, 2016

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“1933, the height of the Great Depression. Hoboes roamed the land; riding the rails in a  desperate search for jobs. Spurned by society, unwanted and homeless, they became a breed apart. Nomads who scorned the law and enforced their own. Dedicated to their destruction was the Railroad Man who stood between them and their only source of survival — The Trains.” – opening scroll of Emperor of the North

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on a pristine-looking Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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Originally titled The Emperor of the North Pole, the film had been developed by Sam Peckinpah and screenwriter Christopher Knopf for three years. Knopf was interested in the story of Leon Ray Livingston, a turn-of-the-century hobo who wrote a series of memoirs under the pseudonym “A-No. 1″, including From Coast to Coast with Jack London (1917), a remembrance of his tramping with the young author published after London’s death. This  became one of the source texts for the script. Knopf’s screenplay is a streamlined machine that pits A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) against a militantly anti-hobo train engineer named Shack (Ernest Borgnine). Shack is known for never allowing a tramp to successfully complete a journey on one of his cars, thanks to a series of gruesome weapons including ball-peen hammers and lead pipes. A-No. 1 announces that he will ride Shack’s train, Number 19, all the way to Portland, OR. An uninvited guest appears in the person of the hobo-initiate Cigaret (Keith Carradine), which was Jack London’s moniker from his tramping days. Cigaret is a spindly hot-head who A-No. 1 reluctantly takes under his wing, until he realizes that wing is being burned off. Shack, A-No.1, and Cigaret are then involved in a pitched battle as they ride the iron horse into the northwest.

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Producer Kenneth Hyman pulled the project away from Paramount and Peckinpah in 1971, and brought it to Aldrich and Twentieth Century Fox. Hyman had successfully worked with Aldrich on The Dirty Dozen a few years previously. Peckinpah wrote to Aldrich that, “I cannot say that I am happy about not doing it but I can say that I’m very happy that you are in charge. I have been a devoted fan of your pictures over the years and I feel that my adopted baby is in very good hands.” (quoted in What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, by Alain Silver). Aldrich wouldn’t quite return the compliment. He said, “I think Peckinpah’s a fine director. I don’t think he’s as good as I am, but he’s a sensational director.”

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Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin seem like permanent parts of the landscape, hatchet-faced phantoms doing battle between Railroad Man and Hobo for all eternity. Borgnine’s Shack is wound as tight as his trusty stopwatch, from his death-rictus grin to his face-stompin’ boots. He is a Fascist figure whose role is to keep the trains running on time.  As described in his autobiography, Borgnine “developed a character based on the actor Jack Elam, who I’d worked with on Vera Cruz and Hannie Caulder. Jack was walleyed. Imitating him, I tried to keep one eye looking straight ahead and the other eye down on the ground.” This explains how pop-eyed he looks throughout the movie, as if his pupils were straining to escape his sockets. But the technique is appropriate for Shack’s high strung violence, his eyes looking to attack as much as the rest of his body.

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A-No.1 is an equally tough S.O.B (he knocks a child out with a live chicken), though he has brief flashes of humanity, as when he deigns to teach Cigaret a few tricks of the hobo trade, like how slathering oil on the tracks can delay a train’s departure. These moments of openness swiftly close once any shred of his independence is being encroached upon, at which point he will disappear in the foliage, having hidey-holes constructed all around the country. He’s less a community hobo organizer than a paranoid separatist militiaman, perpetually concerned about any and all impingements on his freedom, regardless of how necessary. He dumps friends as easily as he downs a beer. Christopher Knopf spoke with Marvin before the shoot, and recalled, “I met Marvin in Bob [Aldrich’s] office on the Fox lot before filming began on location. There was that squint in his eyes and the so familiar baritone voice as he held court, dissecting his role. ‘The guy’s a philosopher, a disciple of Kant’s metaphysics and ethics, right?’ I nodded. ‘Bullshit.’ The man was already in character.”

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Aldrich and his regular DP Joseph Biroc shot the film on location on the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway (OP&E). The basic division of the frame is Borgnine in high angle, and A-No.1 coming in low, as Shack is constantly on lookout perches, while A-No.1 is crawling into tubes or hanging onto the undercarriage.  There is a necessary balance here, and though they barely exchange ten words to each other, both men understand the essential role they are playing in this drama, and an unspoken respect goes along with this understanding. What A-No.1 cannot respect is Cigaret’s unbalancing presence. The jittery Cigaret gets bored with A-No.1′s lessons and starts improvising bum techniques, risking A-No.1′s life in the process. Cigaret is disrupting the natural process of Hobo vs. Railroad Man. For A-No.1, there is no bigger insult than, “Kid, you’ve got no class.” Class equals tradition, and Cigaret is not honoring the tradition of the hobo and engineer beating each other to death.

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The trains would be running 25-30 miles an hour, and Aldrich had Borgnine and Marvin running up and down the roofs of the trains during their epic final fight, in which the two battered icons break each other’s bones with axe handles and two-by-fours. The autumnal greens and browns of the Oregon forest are a fecund backdrop to a life-draining fight, one which seems to give Shack and A-No.1 a euphoric high. These two extremists have never been happier than to be stuck in a duel on a moving train, their mouths bleeding and their knees buckling, their whole way of life on the line.

OUT FOR THE COUNT: FAT CITY (1972)

September 22, 2015

Fat_City-742983492-largeFat City (1972) is a major bummer in a minor key, detailing the apathetic lives of a couple of down-on-their-luck boxers in Stockton, California. Director John Huston had been trained as a boxer when he was seventeen, and was still friends with some of his fellow pugs from the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. So he was attracted to Leonard Gardner’s novel of the same name, which captured the lower levels of the sweet science, of callow kids struggling  their way up the card and punch-drunk veterans close to washing out. The film is as stuck in a haze as its protagonists, with neither attaining sharpness or clarity, both shot in the dusky glow of DP Conrad Hall’s cinematography. All of which can be seen to devastating effect in the beautiful new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives).

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John Huston and his producing partner Ray Stark hired Gardner to adapt the screenplay from his novel, and the film started shooting on location in Stockton, CA in June of 1971. The story, such as it is, revolves around two struggling fighters. The first is Tully (Stacy Keach), a drifter and day laborer who dreams of getting back into shape for another run inside the ring. His initial boxing career was ended by booze, which he hit hard after his marriage dissolved. Broke and almost thirty-years-old, all he has left are dreams and alcohol. One day at the gym he meets Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a painfully young kid with a long reach who Tully encourages to pursue a career in pugilism. Tully directs him to his old coach Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), an amiable bottom-feeder with delusions of championship belts. His eyes light up when he sees Ernie, a handsome white kid who could bring in box office. Tully and Ernie both get in the ring, winning some and losing some, but never getting ahead. Tully spends his free time with Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a similarly afflicted drunk, who is passing the time until her boyfriend Earl (Curtis Cokes) gets out of prison. Ernie takes up with small town girl Faye (Candy Clark), their relationship made out of conversations in parked cars. Poverty is an endless loop, and as much as Tully and Ernie claw against its grip, they always end up broke and looking for another angle.

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It’s a recursive film, with Tully sticking to his routines and hoping for different outcomes that never arrive. He goes from day labor (picking fruits and vegetables) to a grim-looking bar and back home, with an occasional detour to an empty gym. The locations speak more than Tully ever could, as the movie opens with a montage of the  town’s poorest neighborhood, showing a Mission house, a burnt-down home, a bum smoothing his hair in front of a Kaopectate sign, while the locals, , blacks, whites and Hispanics, go about the business of daily life next to the bombed-out homes. In his autobiography An Open Book, John Huston recalled the Stockton neighborhood. where he cast many non-professional actors:

We shot most of the picture on Stockton’s Skid Row. It’s now a thing of the past; they’ve wiped it out. I wonder where all the poor devils who inhabited it have gone. They have to be somewhere. There were crummy little hotels; gaps between buildings like missing teeth; people…standing around or sitting on orange crates; little gambling halls where they played for nickels and dimes. Many of the signs were in Chinese because the area had a large Chinese population. The police were very gentle with the derelicts. As long as they stayed within the sharply defined boundaries of the neighborhood, they could sleep in doorways, wine bottle in hand; if they wandered out, the police simply shooed them back. They were completely harmless, defeated men.

 

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Stacy Keach embodies the defeated man, first seen sprawled in bed in old tight briefs, faded polo shirt, and a stringy receding hairline. His most prominent feature is a scar on his lip, which makes him look like he’s snarling before he even speaks. He’s a natural backslider. His first day back in the gym he pulls a muscle, so ends up at a bar. It is there he meets Oma, a a blowsy broad who dresses as loudly as Edina from Absolutely Fabulous. Susan Tyrrell was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and it is a fearless one. She is greasy all over, and shows Oma to be so pumped full of alcohol she’s almost sliding out of the film frame throughout the movie. Oma’s rapport with Tully is like recognizing like, two defeated people pretending to be alive again. The flirtation is invigorating, firing those old synapses, in their brief time together they seem like patients awakening out of a coma. But it’s only a flash, and soon they retreat to their own pockets of darkness.

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DP Conrad Hall does some wonderful things with shadow, including one moving sequence with Ruben, the boxing coach. In the only shot of him at home, he is sitting up in bed next to his slumbering wife, knuckles on chin. His face is edged with light as he expresses his dreams: “This kid could develop. Aw, you oughta see the reach on him. And he’s tall, you know. He put on some weight he could look like a good looking white heavyweight. He could draw crowds someday, if he ever learned how to fight. Maybe he can if he just listened to me and let me put everything I know into him. Sweetheart, you awake?” She is not awake, having missed his fantasies for what we assume is the umpteenth time. Ruben turns off the lamp, and smokes his cigarette in the dark, the tip of it lighting up just before a cut. Ernie is not much of a fighter, but this is a ritual Ruben clearly most go through to justify his work, one of the many rationalizations that keep these men and women going. Tully constantly claims he can get back into fighting shape while Ernie talks himself into loving and marrying Faye, despite having known each other briefly, mostly by the sides of roads.

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Fat City is made up these rationalizing rituals, the little motivational tactics that get us through bad days. It’s easiest when another person is there to hear them, even if they aren’t paying attention. The saddest and most beautiful performance of the film comes from Sixto Rodriguez (not the Searching for Sugar Man guy, but an ex-boxer), whose character is completely alone. He plays Lucero, a veteran Mexican fighter brought to Stockton to face Tully. He arrives on a Greyhound bus, pisses blood, starts the fight, and gets knocked out. After the bout he wordlessly strolls out of the theater hallway, impeccably tailored. The ceiling lights start turning off in succession above him, a theatrical send-off for the end of his career, and quite possibly his life.   Rodriguez was an ex-boxer who fought under the nickname “Kid Sixto”. He compiled a career record of 28-12-3, with 7 knockouts. The 6′ 1″ Puerto Rican’s last fight was in 1964 when he was 27, a 10 round victory over Norman Letcher in San Francisco. Rodriguez was 34 when Fat City was being shot, retired for seven years already. So he already knew how it felt on that last walk, when all you had known, all you had trained for, fades to black.

 

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WAY DOWN EAST: HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955)

August 18, 2015

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For his last film under contract at Twentieth Century-Fox, Sam Fuller directed House of Bamboo (1955), a film noir relocated to Japan. Daryl Zanuck took Harry Kleiner’s screenplay for The Street With No Name (’48) and dropped it in Fuller’s lap, inviting him to remake it on location in Tokyo. Shot in CinemaScope and Deluxe color, it is Fuller’s most beautiful film, and the new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available for purchase at Screen Archives) looks flawless. Clearly inspired by his surroundings, and backed by an A-picture budget, Fuller works variations on the slashing lines of slatted bamboo curtains, sliding doors, and the increasingly vertical Tokyo cityscape, ending in a justifiably famous rooftop amusement park ride, a deadly trip around Saturn’s rings.

Fox promoted House of Bamboo as the first Hollywood feature shot in Japan, but that was all just ballyhoo. In 1951 RKO produced their anti-commie drama Tokyo File 212 on location, complete with approval from Douglas MacArthur, who was then Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. Four years later the pressure to produce propaganda was lessened, and Fuller sneaks some subversive elements into the film’s double-agent drama. The film follows a military cop (Robert Stack) who goes undercover, using the identity of the dishonorably discharged Eddie Spanier. As Spanier, he worms his way into a growing Tokyo gang led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who use a string of pachinko parlors as a front. Spanier gets close with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), whose husband was a member of Dawson’s crew until he was killed in a heist-gone-wrong. Together they help destabilize Dawson’s group from within, with assists handed out by the Japanese police’s Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian star in Hollywood – he starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915) and the American Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter).

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Fuller describes his additions to the script: “I moved the entire shebang to Tokyo, added stuff about Japanese contemporary life, threw in some sexual exploitation and interracial romance, and then, for some unexpected pizzazz, wrote a violent love scene between two hardened criminals.” The Dawson character is in a veiled relationship with his top lieutenant Griff, whom he calls “Ichiban”. Their bond is destroyed by the arrival of the cute Spanier, who Dawson begins to favor. At a post-heist party, Dawson seats Spanier next to him, which causes Griff to to have a drunken blow-up at his descending rank. Essentially Griff is upset at where Dawson positions him in the film’s mise-en-scene. This leads to the “violent love scene” to which Fuller refers, a brilliantly designed assassination in which a bathtub is plugged full of holes, life draining out along with the water. It plays as a scorned lover revenge killing, filled with rage and tenderness.

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The pecking order of Dawson’s gang is established introductory scene in the movie. While trying to prove his underworld bona fides, Spanier attempts to shakedown Tokyo pachinko parlors for protection money. On his second attempt he is coldcocked by Griff (Cameron Mitchell), crashes through a sliding door and into a backroom where Dawson’s crew is arranged in a semicircle around him, with Robert Ryan seated king-like on a riser in the center. This sequence not only establishes the power structure of Dawson’s crew – the farther you radiate out from the center, the weaker the hold – but it establishes Japan as a kind of Russian nesting doll of facades. As each character is hiding secret identities and desires, so the city itself has rooms within rooms, frames within frames.

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One thing Fuller hid from view was the resentment the Japanese people had towards the continuing American presence in their country, and the wide latitude granted to them in the Security Treaty signed in 1951. The relationship between the Japanese and U.S. military police is depicted as open and honest, as Inspector Kito and Captain Hanson exchange information freely in their investigation into Dawson’s gang. But while Fuller was filming, protesters would gather and “chanted anti-American slogans, trying to ruin the scene as best they could.” Fuller intended to use them as background footage – but once DP Joe MacDonald turned the camera on them, they dispersed, likely not wanting to have their faces caught on film.

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Traversing these labyrinthine spaces are Robert Stack and Robert Ryan. Fuller claims he wanted Gary Cooper for the Spanier role, but realized that location shooting would be impossible with such a huge star – any street shooting would be immediately mobbed by fans. So instead he went with Stack, who was recommended to him by his friend Budd Boetticher, for whom Stack starred in Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). Stack brings a wiry, wary quality to the role, a hopped up paranoia that works well in this film of double and triple crosses. Robert Ryan was recommended by producer Buddy Adler, and his lank, louche performance is as relaxed as Stack’s is wound up. They are matched opposites who end up chasing each other through the modernizing Tokyo streets. What starts at a luxe pearl dealership ends at the elaborate rooftop playground at the Matsuma department store. Fuller and MacDonald have fun with the possibilities, at one point sticking the camera on a children’s train ride, following Dawson as he stumbles through the crowd. All the dissembling and hiding in cataracts of secret rooms ends on an amusement park ride, a replica of Saturn with rotating rings. Dawson is chased up there like a treed cat, though with the advantage of having a gun and knowing how to use it. The ride looks rusty and is set at an angle, so the camera takes a canted look at the final movement, and it seems Stack, Ryan and the cameraman are in as much danger as Dawson and Spanier. But they complete the precipitous sequence, and Dawson is left dangling, having run out of hiding places.

WHEN ALIENS ATTACK: IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)

June 2, 2015

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The “It” in It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a lumbering thing, a slow-footed creature from a Martian lagoon terrorizing the crew of a rescue ship returning to Earth. Despite his violent blood-sucking tendencies, “It” is a lovable sort, blundering about in the spacecraft’s engine room with the stunned and disoriented gait of a medicated mastiff. Under the rubber suit was a soused Ray “Crash” Corrigan acting in his final film, a former serial adventure star battling alcoholism, the pathos of his performance pouring out his pores and through the mask designed by Paul Blaisdell. The human crew is less sympathetic, a slickly Brylcreemed group of technocrats who leave each other to die with nary a second thought. This efficient, vulgar, and remarkably suspenseful film was directed by Edward L. Cahn (one of his five 1958 credits). Once a promising director of high-toned genre fare for Universal in the 1930s (see: Afraid to Talk (crime), Law and Order (Western), Laughter in Hell (chain gang)), he descended the ranks at the studio to short subjects until he landed in 1950s B-pictures with independent producer Robert E. Kent.  It! The Terror From Beyond Spaceis their first and most famous film together, since screenwriter Dan O’Bannon lifted its scenario for use in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). And now it is the first Kent-Cahn movie to reach Blu-ray, thanks to Olive Films. It! The Terror Beyond Space should be more than a footnote in Alien oral histories, though, as it stands on its own as a resourcefully relentless scare flick.

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Robert E. Kent was a screenwriter who bounced back and forth between Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers from the late 1930s through the 1950s. His credits run from the “adaptation” of the Bela Lugosi comedy Zombies on Broadway to the same credit on Max Ophuls’ prestige drama The Reckless Moment. He started his own production unit in 1957 (going by various names: Vogue Pictures, Peerless Productions, Harvard Film Corp.), and landed a distribution deal with United Artists. Kent must have met Edward L. Cahn on the set of the immortal The Gashouse Kids in Hollywood (1947), a PRC feature for which Kent wrote the screenplay and Cahn directed. Cahn was respected for his speed and reliability, and Kent surely remembered and filed that away. So Cahn was brought on to direct It! The Terror From Beyond Space for Vogue Pictures, the first of 32 features they would make together in the next four years.

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The original screenplay was written by Jerome Bixby, his first. So he likely came cheap, a priority for Kent’s nascent production unit. But Bixby was building a resume as a prolific Western and Science Fiction author, having already published “It’s a Good Life” in 1953, which would later be adapted into the evil psychic kid Twilight Zone episode of the same name. His story has echoes of A.E. Van Vogt’s story “Black Destroyer”, but it’s also influenced by the locked room monster mystery The Thing From Another World (1951). Col. Edward Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is the only surviving member of an original nine-person Mars mission. The United States Space Commission orders that a rescue ship led by Commander Van Heusen (Kim Spalding) be sent to bring the surviving members home. Upon arrival to the red planet, Van Heusen suspects that Carruthers murdered the rest of his crew, and places Carruthers under ship arrest until they arrive back to Earth, where he will be court-martialed. It is not long before the Colonel is cleared, as a scaled, lizard-like monster picks off the crew one-by-one, sucking them dry of blood (the working title was It, the Vampire From Beyond Space). The surviving crew keeps barricading doors and moving up in the ship until there’s no place left to run.

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At a high-speed 69 minutes, there’s not much time for characterization, but sub-Hawksian attempts are made at a group breakfast. The crew debates Carruthers’ guilt and reminisces about life at home. Commander Van Heusen is adamant that Carruthers is a murderer, and treats him with barely disguised contempt. The female officers are more sympathetic, especially Ann Anderson (Shawn Smith), a combo nurse and waitress (the gender politics are not, let’s say, progressive) who grows closer to Anderson with each passing corpse. The narrative is simple and irresistible, and the higher the crew climbs, the slimmer their chances of escape. The geography of the ship (thin and skyscraper tall) limits their movement, and the monster will just keep tearing through the locked bay doors until it can get to the tasty liquid coursing through their circulatory systems.

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The key to the whole frightful operation is the creature design by Paul Blaisdell, a refugee from American International Pictures. An artist for Science Fiction magazines, he was drafted into monster making by Roger Corman, who paid him a pittance to design The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes (1955). Totally self-taught, he would go on to create a dizzying bestiary of monsters for AIP and others before the Sci-Fi boom trickled out, and he retreated to a career in carpentry. Blaisdell was friendly with Bixby, recalling to biographer Randy Palmer that “Jerry Bixby wrote a hell of a script, in my opinion, and we had no problems figuring out what a Martian lizard-man should look like.” Palmer writes that Blaisdell “wanted to give the lizard-man an expanded, barrel-like chest to suggest the enormous lung capacity a living being would need to survive in the thin atmosphere.” And because it was a carnivore, he gave it needle like teeth. The flat nose and flaring nostrils were added, one assumes, because it looked cool. The problems arose with the casting of Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Blaisdell had almost always played the monsters he designed, fitting them to his own physique. But Ed Small thought Corrigan would add some name value to the marquee, as well as being an act of generosity to a struggling actor. But by all accounts Corrigan was in the midst of a terrible bender, and he never showed up to the costume fitting with Blaisdell. On a tight schedule, Blaisdell couldn’t wait, so he modeled the head on his own, which caused trouble later on, because Corrigan’s enormous sozzled melon stretched out the mask, to the point where his chin is visible in some shots in the movie. Blaisdell was also annoyed with Robert E. Kent and UA executive producer Edward Small, who kept giving him contradictory information about how they wanted the eyes to appear. After many revisions, he was able to please them both, but the experience was a frustrating one (for the full, sad story of his life, read this article by Vincent di Fate for Tor.com).

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Blaisdell’s friend and collaborator Bob Burns recounts similar stories, but also reveals how the set worked as organized by Cahn:

I think it was shot in about 12 days. It had a longer shooting schedule than most of the films Eddie worked on. He also knew the limitations of Crash [brought on by his drinking], and so he kept that in mind. Eddie Cahn, I’ve got to say, was probably one of the best directors I’ve ever seen work —and especially with those short shooting schedule things, where he didn’t have any time. He did his homework every night. He came in and he knew exactly what set-ups he wanted. And, if possible, he could do forty set-ups in a day. He’d just move on. He was even better at it than Roger Corman. Of course, he’d been around a lot longer. He used to do a whole lot of those “B” westerns.

It was an intense workload for the entire production team, which Cahn had to orchestrate under extreme time constraints while juggling the demands of an obstreperous lead monster. Corrigan began his career as a fitness instructor to the stars, climbed to become a leading man in spectacular serials and B-Westerns  (Undersea Kingdom, The Painted Stallion), but ended up in ape suits (Captive Wild Woman, Nabonga, White Pongo) and  one final “It” suit. One can understand his anger.  Through it all, Cahn’s organizational vigor, the strong narrative and geographic line of Bixby’s script, and the stretched-but-still-scary monster design of Paul Blaisdell contribute to a creature-feature that that retains its bite.