August 18, 2015


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


December 7, 2010


In November, Netflix introduced a “streaming only” option to their membership plan, for $7.99 a month, another marker in the slow death of the DVD. Their “Instant” offerings are frequently presented on faded and cropped masters likely made during the VHS days, but the rarity of their hodgepodge collection makes it a near-essential outlet for those interested in American film history. Unless one lives in a cinephilic megacity like New York or L.A., VOD offerings like Netflix Instant and DVD-on-demand outfits like the Warner Archive are the only (legally) easy way to view older titles.

The decline of art and repertory theaters make these services more important than ever. While driving around Buffalo during my Thanksgiving trip home, I passed by the marquee of the art theater I worked at as a disconsolate teen. It’s where I first saw In the Mood For Love and became aware of a cinematic world outside blockbuster-era Hollywood. The letters that greeted me were: Harry Potter/Morning Glory/Inside Job. Through my nostalgic prism this was a bile-inducing travesty, but if I was growing up there now I’d have a much vaster range of titles to watch through Netflix than what I was offered at the upstanding Dipson chain of theaters (you should all go to the old North Park movie palace if you drive through Buffalo).

To underline that fact, there has been a swift uptick in the amount of rare Golden Era Hollywood titles added to the Netflix Instant archives recently. Director Joe Dante posted a tantalizing list of newly available films in the comments section of Dave Kehr’s blog a few days ago. I watched two of them this week, Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West (1952) and Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957).

I had only known Boetticher’s film previously as the title of Jim Kitses’ seminal critical study of the Western, which is required reading for most genre courses in college. It was made four years before he was paired with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott for Seven Men From Now, which kicked off their brilliant and psychologically tortured series of revenge Westerns. They are spare, interiorized dramas tinged with expressionist visual flourishes, like the hanging tree in Ride Lonesome. In comparison, Horizons West is more conventional, with a flatter visual scheme and more transparent character motivations. But there are intimations of his future masterpieces. It is presented in its correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio, in a faded but watchable color transfer.

It tells the story of the Hammond brothers, returning home to Austin from the defeated Confederate army. Robert Ryan is Dan, the older and bitter sibling (“I don’t like to lose”), while Rock Hudson is Neil, the optimist eager to take over the family farm. Dan soon joins a gang of deserters and thieves, and builds them up from cattle rustlers to very persuasive land speculators. Soon Dan imagines building a “Western empire”, where his wife Lorna can be his queen. But before all that he has to run roughshod over his family, and steal Lorna away from the uber-capitalist Northern dandy Cord (a bitchy, superb Raymond Burr).

It is a plot-heavy scenario, with little time for the slow-burn breakdowns of Randolph Scott, but Robert Ryan’s greedy megalomaniac gets the most screen time, and there is a doomed aura to his character that could have been investigated further in a more pared down script (“-I want to make money. -What changed you? -The war, I guess.”). Ryan is a disillusioned war veteran eager to exploit the wide open capitalism of postwar Texas, and succeeds wildly, only to become more violent. His slowly wrinkling face trends downward into a snarl, emphasizing a kind of resigned brutality that Ryan is a master at portraying. It’s a provocative sketch of the haunting leads that Burt Kennedy would crystallize in his later scripts for Boetticher.

Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957) comes during one of his peaks, a few years after Pickup on South Street (1953) and the same year as Forty Guns and Run of the Arrow. It’s another of his slam-bang pulp plots laced with punchy dialogue, bravado camera movements, and a simmering social conscience. Shot in CinemaScope by Joseph Biroc, Netflix Instant presents it cropped in 1.33:1, something of a tragedy. But it is otherwise unavailable on DVD in America, so this bowdlerized version is all we have for now. In the opening paragraph of the chapter on China Gate in Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, he makes the characteristic statement:

Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them! Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story! Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never – never! – leave them indifferent!

In the opening sequence of China Gate, a young boy wanders through the ruins of a small village in North Vietnam during the First Indochina War. He hides a puppy inside his shirt, only letting him out to eat some scraps on the ground. Then a starving man spies the animal, and desperate for food, chases the boy with a knife wielded high. The kid hides in a nearby bunker housing soldiers and loses him. Fuller strategically wields swooping crane shots, moving in to create tension and then back out to establish the horrifically scarred landscape.

The boy is the child of “Lucky Legs” (Angie Dickinson), an alcoholic single mother of Chinese-Caucasian descent (“I’m a bit of everything and a lot of nothing”). She survives by smuggling booze across the border to China along with, it is strongly implied, prostitution. The French Foreign Legion hires her as a scout on a mission to bomb an major rebel arms cache. The detail is led by Sergeant Brock (Gene Barry), a racist who abandoned Lucky after he discovered their child looked Chinese. Also in this group of mercenaries is Nat King Cole (Goldie), who did the part for scale, simply because of his enthusiasm for the project, according to Fuller. Cole also sings the lovely, funereal theme song, written by composer Victor Young before his death (the lyrics were by Harold Adamson, and the film’s full score was completed by Max Steiner).

It is filled with the bitter, grotesque ironies of war, such as the former French gendarme getting gunned down after an extended monologue about his previous life, which closed with, “This is the way to live!” These soldiers of fortune are brutalized and scared, with one Hungarian suffering from hallucinations of Russian troops stalking him. Brock orders that he be killed. Another dies in a fluke accident, and whose last words are, “I hope there’s a heaven. It would kill me to have to come here again.”

It’s bleak and blackly comic, a desperate and prescient anti-war film made seven years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the ramping up of U.S. troops in the region. I’ll give Fuller the last word:

My tale is full of human foible and confusion. I deliberately wanted that confusion. I was still thinking of Clare Booth Luce’s remark that ‘anyone who isn’t thoroughly confused, isn’t thinking clearly.’


April 27, 2010


While the TCM Classic Film Festival was wrapping up out in L.A., I was pursuing my own personal Jean Renoir festival back in NYC. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is currently exhibiting a must-see retrospective that will hopefully tour a city near you. My personal highlight of the series so far is The Woman on the Beach, his last production in Hollywood, and by far his strangest, a somnabulist’s vision of a violent love triangle.  Its peculiar, almost abstracted plot was aided by extensive re-shoots after a disastrous preview screening, which trimmed out the exposition, leaving only the trio of lovers’ impulsive, and occasionally inexplicable actions.  Renoir had already pushed the visuals  in an oneiric direction, foggy, emptied-out landscapes of hollowed-out hulls and vertiginous cliffs. He even challenged his sound man to record the dialogue at an unusually low level, to emphasize the characters’ loneliness.

The pared-down result of the studio interference then, actually reinforces Renoir’s stylistic choices, and quite possibly made it a better film. This is exactly what Janet Bergstrom argues in her superb production history: “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach”, which she published in the Film History journal in 1999. It is my main source for this post.

The story concerns a shell-shocked Navy vet, Scott (Robert Ryan), whose recurring nightmares of being torpedoed keep him in a constant state of anxiety. Attempting to banish these neuroses, he quickly proposes to his girlfriend Eve (Nan Leslie). After her skittish response, in which she is clearly shaken by his unhinged intensity, Scott begins a flirtation with Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett), who has been scarred by violence in her own manner. During a fight with her husband Tod (Charles Bickford), a painter, she accidently severed his optic nerve, blinding him for life. Bonding over their mutual traumas, they engage in a furtive affair, while Scott still manages a combative friendship with Tod. Ultimately driven to the brink of madness by their insecurities, Scott and Tod come into conflict…

Renoir recognized the strangeness of his conception of this film, describing it as “the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari.” And emphasizing that its “subject was the opposite of everything I had been working toward in the cinema up to that point.” He went on:

The Woman on the Beach was a perfect theme for treating the drama of isolation. Its simplicity made all kinds of development possible. The actions of the three principal characters were wholly stripped of colourful detai; they took place in empty landscapes and in a perfectly abstract style…In all my previous films I had tried to depict the bonds uniting the individual to his environment…now I was embarked on a study of persons whose sole idea was to close the door on that absolutely concrete phenomenon which we call life.”

Renoir closes this door when he uses a dream sequence to introduce Robert Ryan. He begins as a nightmare. With the strains of “Home on the Range” ironically cooing in the background, Ryan imagines himself on a ship – followed by a massive explosion. He sinks to what looks like the bottom of an aquarium, where Eve is waiting for him in an evening gown with open arms. Right before he embraces her, there is another explosion. His war experiences are explicitly blocking him from a life with Eve, and dooming him to one of apparitions and hallucinations. He is like the character of Cesar from Caligari, motoring through his inexplicable deeds without a will of his own.

So when he begins to obsess that Tod is lying about his blindness, or insist upon a fishing trip in a rainstorm, he is operating solely on his unconscious drives – the neuroses engendered from battle. Peggy is on a similar path, wracked with guilt over stealing her lovers’ sight, and destroying his successful career as a painter. She is filled with hate for herself and with Tod, which can exhibit itself in improbably nurturing ways. As always with Renoir, “everyone has their reasons”, and it’s impossible to pin any of the characters down as the villain. All show flashes of sympathy and rage – Peggy snuggling on the couch with Tod, reminiscing about their youthful days in NYC, or Scott snapping from protective lover to vengeful cuckold. All three actors are fascinating to watch, and Renoir carefully balances their power relations in his fluid compositions [the most explicit is the interior boat shot above, where Scott and Peggy embrace inside while Tod is isolated in a separate plane outside the porthole].

Ryan is earnest and bereft, all-too-aware of his crumbling psyche and his inability to heal it. He has a seaman’s bearing that bends under the weight of the Butler household’s demands. Bickford is prickly and condescending as Tod, a bellowing ironist with an uneasy gait, his vast array of ascots unable to hold back the bile he irresistibly spews, mainly at his wife, who he delights in harming. Bennett is enigmatic and cold, her love of Tod turned to hate, but who still recognizes its original provenance. She shares her husband’s sarcasm and cynicism, but stays in the marriage because of an unshakable nostalgia and loyalty. With her melancholy eyes mixing pity and desperation, she casts the most elusive portrait of the three. Bennet was the one who demanded Renoir direct the film, after producer Val Lewton recommended Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, among others. She remained steadfast.

The film was first finished on July 1946, and a preview screening took place on August 2. The reaction was so negative that major revisions took place. The second version of the film was not released until June 8, 1947. Early in the pre-production process, the Production Code Adminstration (PCA) demanded the removal of any explicit reference to a “sex affair between Peggy and Scott and to omit any of the passionate kisses indicated in the present story.” Renoir reluctantly obliged. As Bergstrom notes:

“when ‘human desire’, as Lang would call it in his 1953 remake of La Bete Humaine, could not be acknowledged as the dominant theme, Scott’s neurosis because of his war experiences had to carry much more weight in his abrupt turn from the stability of his life with Eve toward his unsettling, moth-to-the-flame meetings with Peggy and Tod.”

Along with this repression of the sexual theme, Renoir dropped some boilerplate sub-plots that turned Peggy into a generic femme fatale.

Following some re-editing,  RKO solicited suggestions from other directors. John Huston “recommended that the film tell one story and that Scott’s neurosis should be eliminated.” Mark Robson advised “going back to Renoir’s original version because the film as it now exists is too confusing and choppy to make much sense.” Neither suggestion was agreeable to the studio, so RKO hired writer Frank Davis to re-work some scenes, beginning on September 23, 1946. Renoir greeted him with hope: “I have found my ideal collaborator.”

With Davis, a great deal of footage was re-shot. Renoir tells Pierre Lestringuez that it was nearly half the film. Nine years later he told Rivette and Truffaut that it was a third of the film, “essentially the scenes between Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan.” For unknown reasons, they also re-cast the role of Eve, replacing Virginia Huston with Nan Leslie, necessitating re-shoots for all of those scenes as well. It was a laborious and inevitably annoying process, but one with curiously positive results. As Bergstrom writes, and I agree, the film becomes almost Langian in its determinism and sparseness, rare for Renoir, but an appropriate reflection of his alienation from the studio system at this time. What was originally going to be a routine melodrama of sex and death becomes something more mysterious, where a trio of damaged lovers work out their unconscious drives on-screen, turning it into a  bewitching kind of trance film.

The Woman on the Beach is available in a Region 2 DVD from the French company Editions Montparnasse. Glenn Kenny reviews the disc here.


November 10, 2009

men in war

Robert Ryan looks exhausted in Men In War, Anthony Mann’s spare Korean War drama. He focuses all of his energy on curling his upper lip, slitting his eyes, and furrowing his brow, as you see in the photo above. He’s worried, tired, broken. He delivers the dialogue with a laconic flatness, never rising above a low rumble. His Lt. Benson confronts a dead soldier with the same intonation as he does a busted radio: “This war, you’re either healthy or you’re dead”. He continues doing his job out of inertia, prodded on by the desperate stares of his men. His weary resignation shifts into a bitter nihilism before the final battle, and Ryan handles the transition by adding a tremolo to his voice and taking off his helmet, revealing his matted-down mop of hair. Working with Mann, it’s a masterful bit of sepulchral underplaying, keyed to the battered landscape and the canny enemies that hide inside it.

Based on Van van Praag’s WWII novel, Day Without End (1949), and adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan (in collaboration with the blacklisted Ben Maddow, who is uncredited), Men In War follows Lt. Benson and his unit as they are cut off from central command and try to fight their way out from behind enemy lines. They are joined by the amoral Sergeant Montana (Aldo Ray) and his Colonel (Robert Keith), who has been shell-shocked into silence. All of these men are literally disconnected, as the opening scene finds the radio man repeatedly calling for help as Mann pans over a smoky, desolate horizon. No answer. This opening shot sets up the soldiers’ growing alienation from the army, and the incipient danger of the landscape, from which Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller (who does fine foggy work) will wring a series of compositions emphasizing the North Korean’s mastery of the terrain. Manny Farber:  “…the terrain is special in that it is used, kicked, grappled, worried, sweated up, burrowed into, stomped on.”  Mann focuses on boots in mud and “threading lines at twilight” that emphasis the physical toll of battle. Nature is synonymous with death, and it shows in every crease on Ryan’s brow.

Mann cements this early on, in a rhyming composition between a dead, slumped over soldier, and Ryan’s resting body in a foxhole. Ryan is the walking dead, and so are his men, but they move on. While American bodies are slumped and lifeless, devoured by their surroundings, their Korean adversaries show off their knowledge of the terrain.

They have all the tactical advantages, while Ryan’s men start to reach a hysterical pitch of complaining. There are two central conflicts, one between Benson and Montana, and the other between soldier and landscape. Montana is a shoot-first, take-no-prisoners type, whose fearlessness and brutality saves lives and bruises Benson’s already wounded nobility. Benson is trying to maintain a code of honor, but events keep spiraling out of control, with Montana’s smiling head pulling a trigger to solve the problem. Benson demands that Montana take a prisoner – and he guns him down instead. When Benson inspects the body, he discovers a pistol in the hat that would probably have taken him down. Montana simply wants to get his Colonel home safe, this doddering old man the only thing left in the world that he values. Army protocol takes a beating here, which drew the ire of the U.S. Armed Services, who publicly condemned the film and refused any assistance in its production, from on-set experts to weapons and ammunition.

The Benson-Montana showdown plays out in a rather predictable manner, but Ryan and Ray imbue it with enough bleary resignation and childish psychosis, respectively, that it’s an effective microcosm of the broader drama of man versus nature. The only sense in which Mann allows these soldiers a measure of control is in his obsessive inserts of hands – especially in the exchange of cigarettes. These close-ups show the miniature world in which Benson can gain control of. Outside, Montana is overthrowing his ethics and the DPRK Army will soon overrun his men. And eventually the world right in front of their eyeballs face the reality of blood and dog tags.