BATTLE LINES: ZULU (1964)

February 18, 2014

960 zulu blu-ray3

In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in something approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.

cy-endfield

Endfield was a polymath with a gift for card tricks and inventions as well as directing – he impressed fellow magic lover Orson Welles so much he was hired as an assistant at Mercury Productions. Later he invented a portable word processor called the Microwriter, and a computerized pocket organizer called the Agenda. A tinkerer since birth, he clearly shared Welles’ viewpoint that the movie set was “the biggest toy-train set any boy ever had.” The product of Scranton, Pennsylvania, he became attracted to magic when he was 12 or 13. Endfield told Jonathan Rosenbaum that, “the element that attracted me was the dexterity aspect of it.” After seeing a magician at summer camp he designed his own card tricks and gained notoriety by describing the tricks in magazines. He would continue to hone his gift even while attending Yale (where he joined the Young Communist League) and moving to NYC to pursue a career in theater – which was just a bigger stage for illusions. He was aligned with the New Theatre League, a left wing federation of small theaters and theatrical groups organized in 1935. Its main role was to distribute scripts of “Living Newspapers” to its affiliated groups in support of nationwide political campaigns, whether in aid of Spanish Democracy or boycotting the Hearst Press. Everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Brecht lent a hand in the cause. This is the period that probably landed him on HUAC watchlists. He denied ever becoming a member of the party into the 1990s, which Rosenbaum discovered to be false, a lie presumably made so not to scare off any future employers.

Of his Hollywood work, the easiest to see is Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury, 1950), one of his most explicitly political films made right before his exile. A furious noir about a botched kidnapping, it poses violence as the natural state of American life, ending in a lynching scene of infernal grotesquerie. A theater manager showing the film told Endfield “I never have a performance when I don’t get two or three people coming around to tell me it’s a disgrace to run this kind of anti-American picture.” Named a communist in a HUAC report, Endfield fled the country before he had to start naming names. For the first few years in England he used a front for his films, using his friend’s name Charles de Lautour, for two films, and used it as a co-directing credit on a third, Child in the House (1956), which would be the first pairing of Endfield and Baker. It is an uncharacteristic kitchen sink drama for the duo, who would spend the next five on various self-destructive adventures throughout the British Empire.

add4aa50ce4692810ab6a1b5687673a1

Hell Drivers (’57) finds Baker as an ex-con trucker vengefully taking down his former mob boss’ rackets, while Sea Fury and Jet Storm (which I regrettably have yet to see), involve explosive tankers and a grieving father who threatens to take down an airplane. Zulu is their largest scale operation, for which Baker formed his own production company, Diamond Films. Baker, now an established star, was personally invested in the project, proud as he was of the Welsh character of the company that defended the outpost. Though it was made up of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers, B company of the 24th regiment was based in Brecon, South Wales, and so retained a Welsh character, which was exaggerated in the film. Baker brought Endfield’s script to producer Joseph Levine while he was filming Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), who quickly agreed. It was shot on location in South Africa, with the cooperation of the Zulu nation. Chief Buthulezi acted as the Zulu leader in the film, and in his autobiography Michael Caine says a Zulu princess acted as a consultant on their war strategy from the period.

extra large

It is subject matter fraught with racial tension, a fabled British military victory that involved the slaughter of thousands of black colonial subjects. Endfield avoids a triumphal tone, stripping it of context, and presents it as an abstract depiction of the human condition – as abject as that in the finale of Try and Get MeThe film has had a noticeable cultural impact in the black community. Afrika Bambaataa recalled watching Zulu as a kid, and named his youth organization and hip hop incubator the “Zulu Nation” after their model. He had kids battle each other “in a nonviolent way, like rapper against rapper rather than knife against knife.” Bambaataa remembers the impact the movie had him, how the Zulus, “fought like warriors for land that was theirs.”

Endfield utilizes all of his technical facility in filling the 70mm frames, using dollies down the lines of interchangeable soldiers. The script aims to collapse class difference in the arc of the relationship between Stanley Baker and posh English lieutenant Michael Caine, who was here cast in his first major role. Baker recommended him to Endfield after seeing him in the play Next Time I’ll Sing to You, then all the rage on the West End. Caine was supposed to audition for the role of the Cockney sergeant, but Endfield had already cast the part, but liked Caine’s blonde-haired blue-eyed looks for the high-horse lieutenant. The class lines between Baker and Caine collapse along with the outpost’s initial defenses. As does any lingering racial resentments, as both sides’ troops are gutted, exhausted, and respectful of the other side by the end of the Brits’ bloody Pyrrhic victory.

VINTAGE VIOLENCE: SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965) AND LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976)

August 2, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 2.59.28 PM

A baboon and Santa Claus are witnesses to man’s descent into savagery. In Sands of the Kalahari (1965, out on DVD today from Olive Films), a charter plane crashes in the African desert, and its passengers battle each other (and some observant simians) for survival. Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976, a recent Raro Video DVD release)  finds a couple of pretty boy Dirty Harries gunning down suspects before they have time to commit crimes. Poor Old St. Nick can only grin and bear these assaults on individual freedom. Both films display the brutalizing depths wisecracking civilized types can descend to when they feel above or outside the law.

After the international success of Zulu (1964), director Cy Endfield and actor/producer Stanley Baker reunited in South Africa for Sands of the Kalahari. Endfield, born in Scranton, PA,  had been working in the UK for over a decade after being declared a former Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I discussed his second-to-last Hollywood film, the inflammatory noir The Sound of Fury (1950, aka Try and Get Me), back in February. He used a variety of pseudonyms in the years after he was put on the blacklist, since British producers still wanted U.S. distribution.

Endfield (credited as Charles de la Tour) first worked with Baker on Child in the House (1956), a family drama adapted from the novel by Janet McNeill. They hit it off, and returned with Hell Drivers (where Endfield used his real name for the first time), a taut trucking adventure that established the fatalistic tone of their future collaborations. They continued to elaborate their interest in self-destruction in the thrillers Sea Fury (1958)and Jet Storm (1959) before hitting it big on Zulu.

Like Jet Storm (set on a plane in which a grief-stricken passenger (Richard Attenborough) intends to blow himself up) and ZuluSands of the Kalahari contends with a small group grappling with the prospect of  imminent death. The story was adapted by Endfield from William Mulvihill’s novel of the same name. When a commercial flight is canceled at a Johannesburg airport, a few of the international travelers charter their own plane out: there is the fadingly charismatic pilot Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport); the unfailingly logical, and vaguely Eastern European Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel); ex-German soldier and monkey lover Grimmelman (Harry Andrews); professional British lady Grace Munkton (Susannah York); functioning alcoholic Bain (Stanley Baker); and the immediately shirtless big-game hunter O’Brien (Stuart Whitman).

The plane runs into a swarm of locusts and crashes into the dunes of the Kalahari desert. After the junky jet explodes, the group is stranded in the middle of the most inhospitable place on earth, with sharp-toothed monkeys monitoring their every move. O’Brien sheds his shirt and takes over, and slowly goes mad Heart of Darkness style, growing obsessed with the absolute power he can maintain in this exotic outpost of humanity. Ms. Munkton swoons over his rippling pectorals, but the other passengers aren’t so impressed, and get picked off one by one. What O’Brien ultimately wants is to dominate nature itself, and when humanity fails to pose a challenge, he opts to wage a war against the baboons.

Endfield takes full advantage of the Panavision frame, using the early urban sequences for centered compositions filled with background action, while the desert sections are unbalanced and emptied out. The opening is in medium-shot, while the desert sequences are in long-shot. As the enormity of their situation dawns upon his characters, Endfield pulls further away. It is a nasty little picture, attuned to the brutality of the scenario more than others of its ilk, including the (quite good) Five Came Back (1939, dir. John Farrow), Desperate Search (1950, dir. Joseph H. Lewis), and Flight of the Phoenix (1965, dir. Robert Aldrich). Endfield said, “The only way to do it was to show the essentialism of survival, which was impossible given censorship rules. Otherwise it seems like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.” (from Brian Neve’s career spanning interview).

I shudder to think what an uncensored Sands of the Kalahari would look like, because this is pretty raw material. In one queasy sequence, the remaining men club a wounded impala to death with stones, as Endfield frames them in rare close-up with maniacal grimaces on their faces. In another, O’Brien guns down baboons from their mountainside dwellings, and their corpses fall to the ground like a mealy potatoes.

The main conflict is between O’Brien’s hyper-macho Darwinism and the other men’s reluctant egalitarianism. There is no true competitor, as the Doctor is a coward, the German resorts to the violence he disdains, and Bain is brave but a bit of a dolt. Endfield clearly agrees with the milquetoasts, but is fascinated by O’Brien’s animality. Shunning escape, he chooses to live alone in the desert, growing a patchy beard and awaiting the showdown with the primates whose homeland he has invaded. This final battle is gruesome and short, and in the end Endfield pulls away in his longest long shot, until O’Brien is just another dot on the landscape. Nature, as ever, is unperturbed.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man does not exhibit that kind of formal control, but its tilt-a-whirl frenzy holds its own insane appeal. Directed by Italian exploitation specialist Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), it’s a near plot-less exercise in gonzo action sequences. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock – who also sings the Dylan-esque theme song) are model-handsome cops spearheading a special operations force in Rome. These two grinning sociopaths gleefully snap necks of suspects who survive their chases, and resort to torture for small bits of information. They are the exploitation version of Dirty Harry, who at least had motivation for his sundering of the law. These two are simply insane, although they go about it in an amiable cop show manner, as if CSI: Miami’s David Caruso just started choking out schlubs in the interrogation room.

Without characterization or narrative to speak of, the juice here is in the location shooting of the action scenes, which deliver wildly dangerous stunts on the streets of Rome, often shot without permits. The stunner is the opening motorcycle chase, an epic jaunt through the Via del Corso that weaves through traffic, crashes through cafes, thunders on top of cars, and scares an old blind man. Interspersing camera mounted cycle shots with the death-defying stunt-riders, it’s a full kinesthetic assault that matches its other model, The French Connection (1971), for white-knuckle realism. When the action scenes end, it’s just another campy exploitation movie, but when the cameraman hits the ground running once more, it’s wise to start paying attention.

FOR THE LOVE OF FILM (NOIR) BLOG-A-THON: THE SOUND OF FURY (1950)

February 15, 2011

Screen Shot 2020-01-28 at 4.54.52 PM

The For the Love of Film (Noir) Blog-A-Thon began yesterday, and it’s my turn to jump in. The monster-sized Lloyd Bridges stomping on a panicked populace gives my subject away: The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, 1950).  This whole event is raising money for the Film Noir Foundation’s efforts to restore it. Cy Endfield’s 1950 scorcher about a botched kidnapping job and the mob frenzy that follows is available to watch now on Netflix Instant, so everyone can see how important it is to get pristine 35mm prints of this back into circulation.

Jo Pagano adapted his own 1947 novel, The Condemned, into the screenplay, which is a fictionalized version of the  murder of Brooke Hart in 1933. The same incident was also the basis for Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936). Hart was the son of a successful department store owner in San Jose, California.  Thomas Harold

Thurmond and John M. Holmes drove Hart to the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, hit him over the head with a concrete block, and tossed him into the San Francisco Bay. They then called Hart’s parents, demanding $40,000 for his release. After they were caught, the local papers spread the news that Thurmond and Holmes would plead insanity, enraging the populace. The Lindbergh Baby fiasco occurred the previous year, part of a wave of ransom kidnappings that hit Depression-scarred America, and people were in a vengeful mood. On November 27th, an angry mob stormed the jail, pulled out Thurmond and Holmes, and hung them until they were dead.

The Sound of Fury centers the story on one of the kidnappers, here named Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy). In Cy Endfield’s hard-bitten world, everyone is in it for the money. Howard is an out-of-work father, who moved his family to California with the hopes of hitting it big. Instead he drinks by himself at a bowling alley bar in the afternoon, where he spies Jerry Slocum (a styling Lloyd Bridges) knocking down pins. Jerry, smelling desperation, hooks Howard with the promise of a job offer. In a scene of startling homoeroticism, Jerry brings Howard to his apartment and shows off his rippling pectorals, urges him to feel his silken shirts, and then drops the offer to be his wheelman on some gas station robberies.

Howard reluctantly agrees, with the shadow of poverty inching over his unshaven visage. He starts coming home flush with cash, promising his wife a TV of their own and a full bag of potato chips for his son, who is startled at such abundance. It soon becomes clear that Jerry is equally desperate, running on cologne fumes and his own braggadocio. He’s filled with class resentment, a clotheshorse who can’t afford the best.   He comes up with the kidnapping scheme, partly out of greed, but also malice. When their victim says he gets his suits tailored in NYC, the look of apoplectic rage on Bridges’ face is overwhelming. Later, when he snaps and smashes a guy’s face in with a cinder block, it’s no surprise.

These two petty thieves are contrasted with Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), an upwardly mobile newspaper columnist whose outdoor BBQ would feed Howard’s family for weeks. It’s his columns that stoke the city’s rage regarding Jerry’s crime, including their possible insanity defense. Endfield’s repeated emphasis on economic issues makes Gil’s world almost grotesque. He only agrees to cover the case because his editor promises him a bonus, and the editor is chasing the story because blood moves papers. Everyone is corrupted, but because of his upbringing Gil doesn’t have to choose between crime and starvation.

Once Howard and Jerry are imprisoned, the film’s POV shifts to Gil, who undergoes a moral conversion upon seeing the violent rage his columns have provoked in the public. This section is problematic, simply a series of moralizing speeches about the humanity of everyone, even killers. The rich atmospheres of the first two-thirds give way to Gil’s tasteful living room. Endfiled was clearly not as invested in Gil’s milquetoast character, or the middle-class milieu he inhabits. The richly drawn, neurotic characters of Jerry and Howard are let go for cardboard cut-outs of moral propriety.

But thankfully this is just an interim, for the kicker is the nerve-jangling lynching scene, shot with little dialogue and unflinching brutality. In roiling chiaroscuro, the mob tears through the ineffecutal puffs of tear gas and battles their way into the jail cells. Lloyd Bridges wrenches his face into a beaming psychotic grin, an act of stunning bravado in the face of certain death, as the lynch mob ranges closer. Frank Lovejoy, as Howard, had played it quiet and morose throughout, as if he were already beaten in the opening frame. When they drag him away, past the mute, beaten faces of Gil and the police officers, there is no one left to help, and no cash to set him free.