SUNSHINE NOIR: CUTTER’S WAY (1981)

April 19, 2016

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“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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

OEDIPUS WEST: THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955)

June 17, 2014

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The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.

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Anthony Mann and his screenwriter Philip Yordan were very consciously going after mythic resonances in their Westerns together. Yordan said he was trying to, “find again the purities of heroes of ancient tragedies, of Greek tragedies, and on this I was in perfect agreement with Anthony Mann.” Adapted from Thomas T. Flynn’s 1954 novel by Yordan and Frank Burt,  The Man From Laramie circulates around the Waggoman family, a doomed gene pool overflowing with hubris. Patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) is an aging dictatorial ranch owner, one who built up his land through intimidation, but now desires a life of quietude. His son Dave (Alex Nicol) denies him any peace, a short-fused man-child decked out in leather fringe who lashes out against any perceived slight. Dave is Alec’s sole heir, while it is Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) who in actuality manages the ranch, keeping Dave out of scrapes and hoping for a large slice of inheritance himself. When Will Lockhart (Stewart) rolls into town, all of the festering insecurities of the Waggoman family ooze into the open. Lockhart comes from his own broken home on a mission of vengeance – seeking the man who sold repeating rifles to the Apache, rifles that gunned down his Army cavalry brother.

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Lockhart’s presence activates the Waggoman’s pre-ordained doom, foretold in one of Alec’s dreams, in which a tall slender man kills his son and destroys his family. As in Oedipus Rex, Alec misreads the symbolism of the dream, and suffers his inevitable fate. The family atmosphere is suffocating, but the world of the CinemaScope frame is airy and free. Lockhart is introduced  in a long shot in the desert, traveling from left to right in the frame, pausing to peer at the horizon. He appears as if he is the traditional Western hero, exerting his will over the land. But as the narrative will prove, no one has control other than the fates, and nature rolls along on its own, indifferent to the violence executed amid its beauty. Bazin again:

In most Westerns, even in the best ones like Ford’s, the landscape is an expressionist framework where human trajectories come to make their mark. It Anthony Mann it is an atmosphere. Air itself is not separate from earth and water. Like Cezanne, who wanted to paint it, Anthony Mann wants us to feel aerial space, not like a geometric container, a vacuum from one horizon to the other, but like the concrete quality of space. When his camera pans, it breathes.

Humanity’s imprint on the land is transient. In the opening, Lockhart finds scraps of his brother’s cavalry troop, bits of torched wagon wheel and army uniform. All signs of life have been effaced, and soon there will be nothing. The same can be said for Waggoman’s ranch, Alec’s gesture towards permanence threatened with extinction thanks to Dave and Vic’s rivalry for Alec’s affections.

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As the film’s instigating force, Lockhart is a man of abiding hatred. As his old coot sidekick will tell him, “hate’s unbecoming on a man like you. On some people it shows.” While Mann prefers to depict the arid landscape in long shot, his few close-ups are used to emphasize Lockhart’s humiliation. In the inciting act, Dave Waggoman orders Lockhart to be tied up and dragged through a fire. Jimmy Stewart’s face turns into an agonized rictus, his voice a swallowed down yelp. The Man From Laramie is a brutally violent film, and Mann claims to have pushed the Stewart and his character to his limit:  “That [film] distilled our relationship. I reprised themes and situations by pushing them to their paroxysms. So the band of cowboys surround Jimmy and rope him as they did before in Bend of the River, but here I shot him through the hand!.” The Man From Laramie is a gorgeous paroxysm, one that depicts suffocating, doomed intimacy in the open air. It features one of Stewart’s finest performances, pitched between his natural gentle demeanor, seen in his guarded flirtation with the Waggoman niece (Cathy O’Donnell), and  blinkered, self-destructive rage, whenever his physical boundaries are violated. He is a docile animal except when cornered, when he attempts to carve his own fate out of others’ flesh.

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FEAR AND SELF-LOATHING IN MEXICO: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)

March 25, 2014

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The story of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is told through the fabric of Warren Oates’ white polyester suit. It’s a flamboyant object covering up a quivering, self-loathing mass of flesh. And soon it gets covered in enough blood to match his insides. Director Sam Peckinpah dove right into production on Alfredo Garcia after the scorched earth war that was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid shoot, on which he battled MGM head James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey over final cut and lost. Thanks to producer Martin Baum, he had complete freedom on  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and what he produced is a bloody burlesque of his own delusions of masculine grandeur. Now out in a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), which faithfully reproduces the rotting browns of Peckinpah’s Mexico City, the movie remains one of the grimmest self-portraits in movie history. Or, as Howard Hampton memorably put it, “the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.”

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Driving up to film The Ballad of Cable Hogue in 1970, dialogue supervisor Frank Kowalski pitched Peckinpah on a story idea. He had a title and a basic scenario, about an assassination that required proof: the target’s severed head. They worked on the concept for years, even in England when Peckinpah was making Straw Dogs. The script was eventually written by frequent collaborator Gordon Dawson, a producer since Cable Hogue. With The Getaway (1972) a bona fide hit, Martin Baum was able to secure funding from United Artists just on the story idea. Baum had just formed the independent Optimus Productions, and secured a distribution deal with UA. They were given forty-six days and a budget of $1.5 million. Without any studio oversight, and a sympathetic producer in Baum, Peckinpah would be able to make Alfredo Garcia his way – which meant organized chaos. Peckinpah was a functional alcoholic, though his erratic behavior was indulged by some, and exhausted others. Dawson refused to work with Peckinpah after Alfredo Garcia, telling biographer David Weddle that the director was, “into a lot of weird doctors. Every time you wanted to get him out of his trailer he was hooked up to an IV of some sort.” Garner Simmons, who was on set for the production, reports a more convivial atmosphere. Emilio Fernandez, who plays El Jefe, the patriarch who orders the hit on Alfredo Garcia, was complimentary on the set, saying, “John Ford was my master and mi compadre. Sam Peckinpah is my son — no, my grandson.”

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At this point the myth of Peckinpah has seemed to eclipse Peckinpah the artist, with his off-camera adventures more well-documented than the films. On Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the two seem to blur. Warren Oates plays Bennie, an insecure hack who croaks “Guantanamera” to drunk tourists in Mexico City, playing to the crowd for tips. Like Peckinpah’s vision of the company Hollywood man, he’s pitching the lowest common denominator to the masses. In his white leisure suit and windshield-sized sunglasses he’s the most clownish of Peckinpah’s anti-heroes, indicative of the self-loathing undertone to the film. Peckinpah is sending up his own reputation as a loose cannon, depicting Bennie’s escapades as curdled burlesque, as when he attempts to cure crabs by pouring whiskey down his pants.

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If Bennie is the director, El Jefe is the studio head, with his hired goons Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) his unit producers, who enforce their will with humorless efficiency, much like Aubrey, a fixer brought in to cut costs. Sappensly and Quill wear suits and win influence with money more than force, as the mob business has become as corporatized as the studio structure. The coldly impersonal depiction of mob bureaucracy recalls Point Blank, though Bennie is no killing machine like Lee Marvin’s Walker. He’s an insecure alkie who get his revenge in spite of himself. His only strength lies in Elita (Isela Vega), a nightclub singer who has taken pity on this sad sack. Their love is impossible, almost alien to the world they inhabit. They live in a dank hole that Bennie seems happy to decay inside until Sappensly and Quill make their offer. He can make thousands if he can locate Alfredo Garcia, with the intimation of even more if he is “discovered” dead. Bennie sees this as his escape from loserdom, a way into the light of riches. Hence long passages of Bennie and Isela snuggling underneath a tree, dreaming of couple things like vacations, when earlier their lives were constricted to bars and flophouses.

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These dreams are delusions, and are very literally buried in the ground, where his leisure suit starts to gain layers of sweat, dirt and blood, getting closer to the color of his own sunburnt skin. Bennie goes a little mad, engaging in spurned-lover arguments with the detached head of Alfredo Garcia, who was once Elita’s lover. Peckinpah frames Bennie’s (and his own) future as one of a ranting crank, railing at the injustices of his life. It is bitterly mordant commentary on Peckinpah’s own career. The style and tempo are as uncertain as Bennie’s psyche. There is a lot of panning and zooming in the frame, as if Peckinpah is unclear of what he wants to focus on. It is a sloppy looking movie, bobbing and weaving to find its center, which usually ends up on Warren Oates’ deeply lined face, as if each indignity carved a new valley in his forehead. Peckinpah’s patented slow motion is used sparingly in the action sequences, weaning himself off the tic that made him famous. Instead the gunfights end in a few trigger squeezes, each click bringing Bennie closer to his desired end.

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BATTLE LINES: ZULU (1964)

February 18, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.