COLUMBO: DOUBLE EXPOSURE (1973)

February 16, 2016

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Robert Culp makes a quality killer. He wears finely tailored clothing and and can convey a level of self-satisfaction that would make Narcissus blush. It is no surprise then, that he was the guest star/guest murderer on Columbo three times, including the episode under study today, Double Exposure (Season 3/Episode 4). Culp plays Dr. Bart Keppel, a marketing guru who peddles the value of subliminal messaging to companies. He calls himself a “motivation research specialist” who writes bestselling books with titles like, Advertising and the Motivated Sale, Motivation Research and its Value in Advertising, Human Values Vs Human Motives, and, my favorite, The Mind String: And How to Pull It. He is a master of manipulating people to part with their money, a corporate con man. He sets up the murder of his largest client (who is ready to fire him) through subliminal film editing. And Columbo finally catches him through subliminal editing of his own. This is a cat-and-mouse game where the chase happens on an on flatbed Steenbeck editing table. Directed with panache by old pro Richard Quine, this deviously complex Columbo was made in an era when celluloid was not yet dead — and it could kill.

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Double Exposure aired on NBC on December 16, 1973, and was written by Stephen J. Cannell (creator of The Rockford Files and The A Team). In the title screen above you see Dr. Keppel placing one of his guns back in its display case, right below a collection of antique blades. Nothing incriminating here, for sure. But what Keppel has in mind for his client Victor Norris (Robert Middleton) is no simple shooting, but an elaborate one involving caviar, a tape recorder, and the aforementioned subliminal editing. Norris is Keppel’s biggest client, and to lose him would be lose his business. Keppel had previously kept him on the hook through blackmail thanks to some compromising photographs. But now Victor is getting antsy, and his only solution is murder. The plan is (not so) simple. Victor and his team will be at Keppel’s studio to view a new cut of a promotional film. To establish an alibi, Keppel will act the voice-over in person, but let the tape recorder take over for him while he slips out for some killing. How does he get Victor out of the theater? Easy: by feeding him caviar beforehand,  jacking up the thermostat, and then slipping in subliminal single frames of iced soda into the promo film, so the sweaty Victor will be consciously and unconsciously dying of thirst. The plan works of course, and Keppel has a complete alibi, as all the filmgoers will testify to his presence in the theater while the murder was taking place.

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Well, this is why Columbo is Columbo. Peter Falk completely inhabits the role as the disheveled homicide lieutenant, whose ruffled exterior masks a rigorously logical mind. Falk introduces a mass of tics to Columbo’s character, from his shuffling walk to the way he arches his elbow to scratch his forehead while thinking. He is also a constant snacker, whether it’s one of his hard boiled eggs or whatever is available on the scene. He has inevitably missed breakfast, lunch or dinner at home, and thus has to nibble his way around a crime scene. In this episode it leads him to a clue, for when he complains about his empty stomach, a cop on the scene leads him to the leftover caviar, which Columbo devours like a bag of Fritos. The saltiness dries his mouth out, and leads him to unlock one piece of Keppel’s absurd puzzle. The others come free in due time, through Columbo’s own dogged research.

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One of the great pleasures of the series is the interplay between the killer and Columbo, which can be a respectful duel between equals (as with Donald Pleasence in Any Old Port in a Storm), or, as in this case, total obliviousness. Keppel has so much belief in his own unimpeachable genius that when Columbo drops the hammer, he sheds a tear. Culp is so beautifully delusional in this episode, treating Columbo with withering disdain whether in his office or on the golf course wearing gigantic sunglasses. His mere presence should make the case disappear, and yet it doesn’t. For Columbo’s great gift is that he doesn’t go away. He doesn’t give up and he never goes away, even when you think he’s out the door he will always return with “one more thing.” When Nietzsche wrote about “eternal recurrence”, he was simply foreshadowing the existence of Columbo.

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And in the perfect world of Columbo, persistence always pays off.  Columbo chooses to play into Keppel’s narcissism in acknowledging him as the main suspect, but admitting they don’t have enough evidence to book him. This is telling Keppel what he wants to hear, warming him up for an emblematic gotcha moment. For Columbo has read all of Keppel’s books, and learned how subliminal advertising works. So when Keppel is away from his office, Columbo takes still pictures from many angles, and inserts them into the latest Keppel commercial. After Keppel views the film, he wanders into his office, tilts a lampshade and pulls out a calibration converter – one that turns his .45 into a gun that can shoot a .22 bullet. Keppel is shell shocked, and Quine pushes the camera closer after his jaw drops: “Subliminal cut, you used a subliminal cut!” In Columbo, it’s the editing that solves the crime.

DIGGING INTO THE WARNER ARCHIVE: …ALL THE MARBLES (1981)

July 13, 2010

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The Warner Archive continues to empty out WB’s library onto their premium-priced burned-on-demand DVDs, and it’s impossible to keep up. I currently have my wavering cursor over the buy button on Sam Fuller’s Verboten (reviewed in this Sunday’s NY Times by Dave Kehr), and the double-feature disc of Hell’s Heroes (1930) and Three Godfathers (1936, Boleslawski, not Ford). But one of the releases I have nabbed is of Robert Aldrich’s final film, …All the Marbles (1981). Released in a strong transfer, which faithfully reproduces Joseph Biroc’s elegiac grey-blue photography of industrial decline, it is, without hyperbole, the greatest women’s wrestling movie of all time. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

Peter Falk plays Harry Sears, the manager and crusty philosopher king of the California Dolls tag team (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) who are slowly punching their way up the ranks. Driving their beat up sedan through decaying Midwestern factory towns, and hustling their way around shyster promoters and county fair pervs, it’s a genial tour of the areas hardest hit by the early 80s recession. The early scenes were shot in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio, and Aldrich films their travels in long shot, images of a car rolling past idling factories and roadside dives, as the team’s conversations are piped in on the soundtrack. At one point Iris (Frederick), after her partner Molly (Landon) complains about the rigors of the road, looks at a passing steel foundry and says, “how’d you like to work in there?”

While on the surface the film follows the normal sports film trajectory (defeat, recovery, victory), visually the film presents a panorama of working class types blowing off steam and struggling to survive. It’s a bracingly bittersweet combination, embodied in Falk’s folksy and violent performance. His Harry Sears is an engaging huckster, raised, as he tells the Dolls, on a combination of Will Rogers and Clifford Odets. Constantly on the phone trolling for gigs, he uses his quote repository to keep his marks off-balance, and as a shield against revealing his own tattered emotions. He’s always spouting lines like how their journey will last “longer than a breath, shorter than a life”, trying to keep his team focused on the present moment, ignoring the failed past and fragile future.  When asked who Rogers and Odets are, he deadpans, “a dance team,” before popping in the cassette tape of Pagliacci’s aria “Vesti la giubba.” Then he’ll pivot from his aesthete mode by playing craps with fixed dice and flashing intense spasms of rage, destroying a promoter’s Benz with a baseball bat and even coming to blows with Iris. An autodidact, father figure and inveterate con man, he’s the perfect character for Falk’s gravelly bravado.

Molly and Iris are less well-defined, more women of action than drama. Molly is a benumbed blonde, addicted to painkillers but still emitting a heartbreaking type of child-like innocence. She’s using the Dolls, more than the others, as a family unit. In the ring she has a more mat-based game, whereas Iris takes more technical risks. Iris is world-weary and hard-working, resigned to working with Harry but desirous of a life above his penny ante tricks. Frederick does fine work summoning up Iris’ patchwork dignity, grasping on to the wispy strands of integrity in her sport to prop up her fading hopes (the film only hints at how fixed pro wrestling is).

It’s Harry who again drags her back down to reality, pulling off a variety of semi-dirty tricks and mounting some old Hollywood razzle dazzle to swing the crowd and nab the Tag Team title. The final fight takes place at the MGM Grand, and the rhinestone-encrusted, child-choir scored entrance seems a tongue-in-cheek homage to MGM Musicals of yore. He even gets former Pittsburgh Steeler Mean Joe Greene and Laker announcer Chick Hearn to narrate the bout, escalating the event to a level of legitimacy heretofore unknown to female fisticuffs. Iris has to accept that image sells and accommodation is integral to that sale.

Both actresses are tall and athletic, and clearly game enough to hold their own in the ring, so the high-angle shots Aldrich uses to spot in the stunt doubles flow seamlessly into the rest of the fights. The matches themselves are crisply edited and shot at a distance. In addition to the geometric overhead shots, Aldrich cuts in to POV shots for impact and medium shots for the majority of the slaps and falls. The action is fast-paced and as passable as the women’s division in the WWE these days. Iris even whips out some impressive aerial maneuvers in the final bout, landing a hurricanrana to gain an early advantage. The convincing nature of the fights was thanks to the help of advisor Mildred Burke, the World Women’s Champion from 1937 – 1957.

The Pagliacci aria plays throughout in what seems like another of Sears’ pretentious affectations of knowledge, until he explains to the gals the story of the opera. Pagliacci was a traveling performer like themselves, and, in his interpretation, the lesson of the character is to “hang in there, even if your heart is breaking.” This sentiment could be ascribed to some of Aldrich’s other conflicted heroes, including the idealistic Lt. Debuin (Bruce Davison) in Ulzana’s Raid, or even Charles Castle in The Big Knife (which Aldrich adapted from Odets). In any case, …All the Marbles is an eccentric, moving, and profoundly appropriate close to Aldrich’s career.

MODERN FIGHT FILMS: THE UNDISPUTED TRILOGY

June 15, 2010

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Walter Hill made his directorial debut with Hard Times (1975), a downbeat portrait of Depression-era gamblers, bare-knuckle brawlers, and the women who put up with them. In 2002, Hill made Undisputed (2002), another fight film, this time set at a prison in the Mojave desert, where a recently jailed ex-heavyweight champ faces off against an undefeated inmate fighter.  Two direct-to-video sequels were spun off of the latter, with the third hitting DVD and Blu-ray this past week (Thanks to IFC’s Matt Singer for recommending #3).

In Hard Times, Hill utilizes the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio to stage scenes in depth, capturing desperate faces in the background cheering on the back alley brawls. During fight scenes, Hill cuts for strategically dramatic emphasis and spatial coherence. When a bald thug lands a blow, Hill cuts back and forth between reaction shots of Charles Bronson (the new fighter in town) and James Coburn (his shyster manager), interspersed with a long shot of the pier on which the scrum is taking place. In this sequence he efficiently establishes the initial goals of the plot – Bronson will destroy the baldie and set up a feud with his opposing  fur-lined coat wearing  manager.  As a fight scene, it’s crisp and coherent, almost always keeping both men’s bodies in the frame, and switching from low to high angles to establish the shifting fortunes of the “hitters”, as Coburn calls them.

In Undisputed (2002) the tempo is sped up considerably, but Hill maintains spatial continuity and dramatic interest. The opening bout is held in a cage, in which there is a similar scene in Hard Times. In both instances, the set has steeply sloped audience seating, and Hill repeatedly cuts to high-angle shots to establish the carinvalesque, Roman Colosseum feel of the bouts. Undisputed packs in far more exposition though, with repeated flashbacks (in B&W) to the back-stories of the main participants (Ving Rhames’ Iceman and Wesley Snipes’ Monroe Hutchen). There is also repeated use of white flashes to cover jump-cuts, adding to the jittery rhythm. And where Hard Times has sparing use of slow-moving pans, Undisputed utilizes a roving SteadiCam in and around the ring.  But even with all of these MTV style additions, the fights are clearly mapped out, with same use of high-low angles to chart the fortunes of the bout. Hill uses the tools of modern ADD-cinema to his advantage, packing in tons of information, from mobster Peter Falk’s love of boxing (cuts to B&W Joe Louis fights) to the details of Iceman’s arrest.

Hill introduces Iceman as a multplied image on a TV monitor, a media creation. First we see interviewer Jim Lampley behind a screen asking a question, but instead of a cut to Ving Rhames, Hill cuts to the production room and his image on television. This clever reversal sets up the gassy bravado of Rhames’ character – who is constantly performing his “warrior” image. In contrast, Snipes is depicted as all interior, quietly building temples out of toothpicks, and speaking only when absolutely necessary. The film is filled with resourceful character bits like this. Rhames and Snipes are in top form here (while Falk enjoyably swallows the scenery whole), and with Hill and fight choreographer Cole S. McKay’s  lucid setups, Undisputed is an underrated entry in the history of the fight film.

Four years later, production company Nu Image (and their subsidiary, Millenium Films), resurrected the title for a sequel, hiring Power Rangers veteran (and martial artist) Isaac Florentine to crank out a low-budget direct-to-video version. Ving Rhames was replaced by Michael Jai White (Spawn), and was re-located to Eastern Europe to take advantage of their low production costs. Instead of trying to pass off Bulgaria as Venice (as they did in the landmark Sharks in Venice), they relocate Iceman to a Russian prison, where he’s jailed on a frame-up drug charge. It’s a ruse by Russian mobster Gaga (Mark Ivanir) to set up a fight with Boyka (Scott Adkins), the champ on his highly lucrative prison fight circuit, which is broadcast to private gambling clubs.

Where the original Undisputed builds a semi-realistic version of prison life, the sequels focus entirely on the fight sequences. The plot is negligible, the supporting cast weak, but the fighting is superb. The term “B movie” is much abused these days, but the Undisputeds honor the scrappy spirit of the Republic and Monogram studios. Limited to a few sets and a flimsy narrative, these cheapies pack in more impressive physical feats than any Hollywood blockbuster that will be released this year.

Florentine, Jai White and Adkins are all trained in martial arts, and have boxes full of black belts among them. So what the film loses in character detail, it gains in athleticism, incorporating more styles in its version of mixed martial-arts. Once called “human cockfighting” by John McCain, MMA, as promoted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has become halfway respectable and turned into one of the most popular sports in the world.

Jai White is a low-key performer, offering none of the sarcastic menace of Rhames, but he’s lithe and powerful in the ring. Adkins is the reason these films got popular, however. A nimble Englishman donning a believable Russian accent, he possesses incredible balance and gymnastic aerial skills – the Astaire to Jai White’s Rogers. Florentine is no Walter Hill, but his fight scenes are clean and economical, mostly keeping both fighters in the frame, with the occasional close-up for emphasis. It’s bracing to watch such simple craft since quick-cut Bourne-clones ruined action movies over the past decade. Florentine’s main tic is using high-speed cameras for super slow motion in capturing Adkins’ more athletic twirlings, moments in which he’s turned into a religious icon of the ring (like the etchings his character prays to before each match). My friend Matt Singer objected to its use in his article, but I think it’s essential to the construction of these films – further illuminating the physicality of the performers.

Listening to their fan base, Adkins is turned from villain to hero in the third, and most satisfying film in the series. Not only does Adkins prove to be an appealingly mulish lead, but the film is filled with breezy supporting turns as well. Mark Ivanir is back as Gaga, played with sardonic charm, and veteran character actors (check out their resumes) Robert Costanzo and Vernon Dobtcheff provide American buffoonery and East-Euro creepiness  with as much bravado as Peter Falk did a crusty old man in the original.

Mobsters from around the world gather for an international prison fighting tournament, betting on the champ from their own country. After getting his leg snapped in Undisputed 2, Boyka is reduced to cleaning toilets while rehabbing his knee at night. He claws his way into the tournament, only to discover it was rigged by the crooked Georgian, Rezo (Dobtcheff). As if pulling names from American Gladiator, he befriends a Yank named Turbo (the I Wanna Be A Soap Star winner Mykel Shannon Jenkins) and plans on upending the whole money-grubbing show.

The tournament shows off a wide variety of fighting styles from a Brazilian’s capoeira to a North Korean’s taekwondo to the unnameable dance-fighting of Dolor (Marko Zaror), the Colombian and Arch-Villain. Prone to shooting heroin in his neck and reading Garcia Lorca under an umbrella shade, he’s a wildly entertaining villain and an equally unpredictable fighter. Pulling aspects of capoeira, boxing, and the tango together with self-regarding verve – his climactic fight against Boyka is an epic and strategic delight. Dolor attacks Boyka’s knee, destroying the Russian’s aerial attack, so Boyka switches tactics and uses a ground game of submission moves and tackles. It’s a nicely thought out piece of fighting psychology that encapsulates the Undisputed series,  a group of films that shows visual and emotional intelligence where you’d least expect it.