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Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Gorgon (1964)

Somewhere in the Castle Borski overlooking the town of Vandorf is the gorgon of the title. Victim number one is a young lady chasing her painter boyfriend who has just discovered that he's got her pregnant and wants to go talk to her dad in the middle of the night. Then again the gorgon probably made a better sculpture out of her than her boyfriend would ever have made a painting. Sasha becomes literally turned to stone. Actually she's victim number seven in five years, all of whom have been turned to stone, and the entire town has somewhat naturally succumbed to deep fear.

Even Dr Namaroff at the Vandorf Medical Institution, played by the dashing Peter Cushing, is afraid, but he knows much more than he's telling. Prof Jules Heitz, with who he once studied, wants to track down the cause of the fear, because the painter was his son Bruno who has been whitewashed as the bad guy in a murder/suicide pact. Not believing a word of it, Prof Heitz investigates the murders, the castle and the legend of Megera, the only surviving member of the legendary gorgons, only to get promptly turned to stone himself.

The cast is impeccable, with many of the Hammer greats, not least Cushing and Christopher Lee, playing another professor, the irascible Prof Meister at Leipzig University, who unfortunately shares very few scenes. Cushing's assistant Carla Hoffman is played by the gorgeous Barbara Shelley. There's also Patrick Troughton and Michael Goodliffe, and as Paul Heitz, who inherits his father's quest for truth, Richard Pasco. All of these appeared in other Hammer films, often many of them. The Hammer horrors were consistent in quality for a long, long time, due mostly to the consistency of their cast and crew.

This one's a decent entry in the canon, with all the qualities you'd expect from a Hammer horror: a decent pulp story courtesy of John Gilling (making recompense for his offense to the cinema by directing Mother Riley Meets the Vampire), great gothic sets (cleverly used so that they appear more plentiful than they really are), decent costumes (Barbara Shelley should always be seen in a great fur lined cape), a decent score and of course decent effects, sparingly used for maximum impact.

The direction is solid, courtesy of Terence Fisher, the granddaddy of all Hammer directors, who began it all with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, then followed up with the 1958 version of Dracula, 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy, then The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll, The Curse of the Werewolf and The Phantom of the Opera, one per year from 1960 on, and finally The Devil Rides Out in 1968. No other man, not even Cushing or Lee could really claim that much Hammer heritage, regardless of how many Dracula films they appeared in. Fisher set in place every sequence for others to follow.

Fatty's Chance Acquaintance (1915)

'Farce comedy' says the title card, as if we needed the hint for a short from Mack Sennett's Keystone company. It's a Fatty Arbuckle short, both as an actor and a director. He's a henpecked husband this time out, on a trip to the park and he looks as nasty as his wife, courtesy of some facial contortions and the amount of makeup everyone wears. Maybe it's the high contrast but some of these old Arbuckles play with a nasty edge similar to some of the earliest Charlie Chaplins before the little tramp acquired a softer more sympathetic side.

Fatty's nasty wife, who looks like the wicked witch of the west, won't let him buy drink because it's cheaper to drink at the fountain, so off he goes to have fun with that. After he has fun with that, he has fun with the chance acquaintance of the title, a young lady played by Minta Durfee, whose other half hasn't got any money. While Fatty's having fun and falling for this young lady's ruses, his wife gets robbed by the young lady's boyfriend, leaving nothing or Fatty to pilfer to spend on his young lady. Yes, you can write the story yourself. This one is OK as these things go but it's routine through and through.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Great Yokai War (2005)

I'm getting used to the screens full of warnings when watching films in the Sundance Channel's Extreme Asia series. Here's one directed by Takashi Miike, so it ought to have about as many warnings as there are warnings. However it only has one: violence. I thought it was a science fiction epic but it's more of a fantasy film, even though it begins with a nightmare about a devastated Tokyo. Maybe young Tadashi has just been watching too many Godzilla movies.

He's a young boy from a broken marriage. After his parents divorce, he moves to a small town with his mother and grandfather, which seems pretty peaceful except that this is a Takashi Miike movie, so you know it's not going to stay that way for long. Soon Granddad finds some bizarre half man half animal in the cattle shed, predicting a great forthcoming war before dying. Then in the spirit world, Lord Kato Yasunori, someone who could only be described as a Japanese Christopher Walken, stands on top of a silo and raises all the spirits that mankind has discarded. Finally young Tadashi gets bitten by a dragon in a ceremonial village festival dance, so becomes the Kirin Rider, the so called guardian of peace and friend of justice.

Little does he realise that this is not something to be taken lightly, however much all he wins to fight with is some beans and rice and a towel. Then again it worked for Arthur Dent, right? Anyway up on Great Tengu Mountain is a great Tengu sword, for the Kirin Rider to collect from the great goblin demon who has pledged allegiance to him. Off goes Tadashi to pick it up, but gets quickly scared away again, only to get thrust right into the middle of a surreal fantasy world at war, with a whole compliment of bizarre characters from Japanese folklore, including a yokai called a sunekosuri, who only he can see and who becomes his friend and companion and who looks like a kung fu hamster.

There are elements of a lot of a lot of films in here, all mixed in together. Just as we begin to see the film as The Neverending Story, we suddenly get thrown Terminator bits and Predator bits and Power Rangers bits and Raiders of the Lost Ark bits and Spirited Away bits and Lord of the Rings bits and Beetlejuice bits and who knows what else. There's even a hamster in a microwave. Tadashi also acquires a few travelling companions to keep his life even more interesting. Kawahime, the river princess, is kind; Kawataro the kappa, or water sprite, is a complete moron and the red guy, whoever he is, is halfway between.

Every time we blink there are more of them, making this a fascinating surreal dream. Imagine Salvador Dali making a film with a screenplay by Luis Bunuel based on a story by Terry Gilliam with character designs by Guillermo del Toro and stop motion animation by Jan Svankmeyer, you might come close. It's that far out there, for sure, but you have to add in Takashi Miike's quirky sense of humour and a huge dose of Oriental mysticism. Apparently humanity's habit of discarding things creates Yomotsumono, which becomes a karmic retribution. No review could come to close to describing everything we see here, not even just the characters, or even all the ones that are made out of stop motion animated junkyard trash. I don't even know what half of these creatures are, but I'd love to find out.

I could say that it's Lord Kato and Yomotsumono and the bizarrely stylised young lady called Agi against the Kirin Rider and the vast hordes of yokai, but that's just one facet of this film. It becomes sheer inspired lunacy to the degree that can't blink for fear of missing something. What it all means is another question, but there's a lot of commentary going on behind the insanity, about friendship and discrimination and sacrifice, about waste and rage and peace, about a whole host of things that escape me because this is hardly a traditional approach to teach us about recycling old shoes, how alcohol gives us vision and azuki beans are protection from evil.

Beyond Miike, who becomes more and more fascinating as time goes by, there are names here that I don't know yet but should. Agi is Chiaki Kuriyama, who was one of the schoolgirls in Battle Royale, the leading lady in the original Japanese version of The Grudge and a character in Kill Bill. Her credits look fascinating, as do those of Etsushi Toyokawa (Lord Kato), Mai Takashi (Kawahime) and Sadao Abe (Kawataro). Then again, the more modern Asian films I see, the more I realise that nobody else seems to know what inspiration is any more. What in the west can even come close to this film, Spirited Away, Survive Style 5+ or Save the Green Planet? I need to revisit The Happiness of the Katakuris. Maybe I'm ready now.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Wake of the Red Witch (1948)

I needed something to clear my head after Big Jim McLain. I was expecting one of the Duke's tough cop roles, but I couldn't have been much further wrong. It was a blatant propaganda piece that delved so far into incoherence that it became stunning for all the wrong reasons. Here's another movie that isn't a western starring the same actor, John Wayne, and made by the same director, Edward Ludwig. I thought of betting against the odds: surely they wouldn't have got the opportunity to make Big Jim McLain together if this one sucked royally, right?

We're in 1860 and the Duke is a Captain, Capt Ralls, who commands the Red Witch of the title. The Red Witch is supposedly transporting $5,000,000 in gold bullion across the south Pacific to the Phillipines for Dutch shipping magnate Mayrant Sidneye, but Ralls has other ideas. Together with a couple of partners in crime, he scuttles the Red Witch in a carefully chosen spot, planning to return a year later to recover his booty, but it isn't going to be that simple. Sidneye withdraws his complaint of piracy to a royal court of inquiry, so that he can redress the balance his own way. He suckers the three crooks to an uncharted island where the game of cat and mouse really begins, not just for the gold but for the beautiful Angelique Desaix.

In the middle of it all, telling our story, is Sam Rosen, who becomes Ralls's first mate and co-conspirator. He's played by Gig Young, as a romantic pirate, though not of the swashbuckling Jack Sparrow type. He's a pretty good foil for the Duke, who isn't bad at all as an anti-hero. He's a villain, no doubt, but he's an honest one with plenty of heroism in him too. His greatest scenes here demonstrates his darker side: the forceful lover and the dangerous drunk. Ralls is a bad man when drunk, almost possessed with intent, and while Wayne was always a powerfully forceful man, he was usually very much in control when demonstrating that. Here the drink takes him a long way away from that control. I'd like to see more of that side of John Wayne.

The third man in Ralls's outfit is Antonio Arrezo, played by an even more unlike man to play a pirate: Paul Fix, who my wife knows as the sheriff from The Rifleman but I remember best nowadays as a different sheriff: the one in Night of the Lepus. The leading lady is Gail Russell and there are also capable character actors in the cast such as Henry Daniell and Luther Adler, but the other character of note is a giant octopus that guards a hoard of huge pearls in a subterranean cave. Yes, the Duke gets to fight an octopus, the very same octopus that Ed Wood stole to use in Bride of the Monster. At least in this film, there's a mechanism to make it move; in Wood's film, Bela Lugosi had to fake both sides of the fight, because that was the only way to get the tentacles to move.

This is far from perfect but it has far more worth than Big Jim McLain. Half the film is notably slow, there are some bad special effects and some very obvious and pointless rear projection shots. Half of the story is in flashback, so after an intriguing opening, Paul Fix virtually disappears from the film and Gig Young only pops in and out on occasion for far too long. There's not enough Gail Russell either though Adele Mara gets some decent screen time as her niece. However even acknowledging all these flaws, I can still vouch for this as a few light years ahead of Big Jim McLain. Wayne is very good indeed and he has a great and memorable battle of wits with his nemesis, Mayrant Sidneye, played by Luther Adler. They're great enemies but they're very much alike in many ways.

Big Jim McLain (1952)

John Wayne was one of Hollywood's best known conservative republicans, fighting his side of the political fence against an industry that was and is primarily full of liberal democrats. The one and only Vietnam War film released while the Vietnam War was still being fought was Wayne's The Green Berets, politically very much opposed to the trend of today's Vietnam War films. This one was made while the Korean War was still on and it's as patriotic as you can imagine.

Anyone not prepared would see the beginning as a documentary on how great the House Un-American Activities Committee was, and yes, that seems as unlikely as you'd expect. John Wayne and James Arness, one of the few Hollywood actors to actually outstrip the Duke in the height stakes (by two inches, no less), are HUAC investigators, Jim McLain and Mal Baxter, who are frustrated at the committee's habit of letting go people they've proved are Communists. Such Communists just go straight back to their jobs as if nothing had ever happened. That seems more than a little hypocritical, given that the committee had hit Hollywood hard in 1947 and made a very nasty dent in the industry.

This film, like a few others with more telling titles, was released as propaganda by the studios to counter what HUAC was doing to them. Others include Red Planet Mars, I Married a Communist and even I Was a Communist for the FBI. Like many propaganda films, it's incoherent, inconsistent and inappropriate, all because everything is secondary to the point it has to make. It's so forced that half the cast, Wayne surprisingly included, sound like they're reading an autocue at gunpoint. Some of it appears to be dubbed. Leading lady Nancy Olson apparently cringed at the content while making the film as much as I did watching it, but she leapt at the part so that she could work with a legend like the Duke.

Five minutes in, when McLain and Baxter hop a plane to Hawaii for Operation Pineapple, their first stop is at the shrine to the USS Arizona, complete with wreath throwing and closeup of the memorial plaque. Ten minutes after that McLain proposes to a local lady he's known for a couple of days in the very same conversation that he admits he's using a false name to get information out of her. And she goes along with him! Then we meet a mad scientist played by Hans Conreid, who talks about a secret weapon that would make all men and women look alike. By this time I'd completely lost track of what I was watching. While the cast dance through their propaganda dance, I just sat back and let the thing stun me.

See John Wayne in swimming trunks! See John Wayne in a Hawaiian shirt! See John Wayne run away from a fight! See John Wayne look small when he's standing next to James Arness! See... I dunno. Watch it yourself and be amazed. It's a documentary, a comedy, a drama, an investigation, a travelogue, a spy film, a love story, a film noir. It really doesn't have a clue what it is, beyond propaganda, and that makes it unintentionally hilarious. Apparently in the German version, McLain is up against drug dealers instead of communists. That may amazingly have made it more coherent.

Monday, 28 July 2008

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

The 3:10 to Yuma is a lonely train apparently, or so tells Frankie Laine's opening theme tune, that plays out like Tex Ritter's theme tune to High Noon, plaintive and leading. However we don't see the train for quite some time, because this isn't your standard shoot 'em up cowboy film, it's a suspense film, almost a film noir in many ways, with an initial setup and then a gradual unveiling of a number of plans with their cat and mouse twists. It's hardly surprising really, as the film is based on a story by Elmore Leonard.

Glenn Ford is the bad guy, Ben Wade by name, who heads up a band of outlaws. As the film opens, he and his band rob Mr Butterfield's stage of the gold it's carrying, and they shoot the driver dead. Van Heflin is the good guy, a cattle rancher called Dan Evans whose cows roam a little close during the holdup, so Wade scatters them and their horses too. Wade isn't stupid and soon sends the Bisbee marshal on a wild goose chase while his men get away, but dallies with a barmaid and gets himself caught.

That's the setup, but then comes the suspense. The marshal has Wade but he doesn't have his men, he's outmanned and outgunned and he wouldn't stand a chance in a fight. The solution is to get Wade out of town immediately, all the while playing on the expectations of his men as to where they'll take him. Where they take him is Contention City, to put up Wade in a room at the hotel to wait for the 3:10 to Yuma. Dan Evans takes the job of getting him there and keeping him there, because Butterfield offers $200 for the job and he needs the money desperately.

As you'd expect from the title, this is a western. Everything is shotguns and horses and stagecoaches, all set against the striking scenery of southern Arizona, as depicted beautifully by the photography of Charles Lawton Jr, who had a lot of westerns behind him already. However with almost no alterations, this could very easily become a low budget Edgar G Ulmer noir set in the sleazy Los Angeles of the fifties, or even a samurai drama or something set on a different planet. I could see it as a late Warner Brothers gangster flick with Humphrey Bogart in Ford's role and Edward G Robinson in Heflin's. It's that archetypal a story.

Delmer Daves directs with style, though he benefits massively from Lawton's cinematography. The story is impeccable and tight. However one of the chief reasons for this being elevated beyond a standard thriller is the way that the characters are written and performed. Ford definitely plays the bad guy, the leader of a vicious outlaw band, but he isn't painted all in black. He treats his lady fine and he even treats his captor with respect. Heflin definitely plays the good guy: tough but easily tempted and we often aren't sure as to which way he'll turn at any given moment. Both breathe life into their characters, never grandstanding or trying to steal the show, just quietly doing what they do, but very memorably indeed.

I haven't been to Bisbee but I've been to Yuma, to the territorial prison no less, and contrary to expectations, the trip was the one time I've ever been really cold in Arizona. Then again it was early January in the middle of the desert with a wind blowing, so the conditions definitely called for it. There wasn't any rain, such as Dan Evans is waiting for here, but it wouldn't have seemed surprising. That this film be remade for a modern audience doesn't seem surprising either and I'm now eager to see director James Mangold's version, with another couple of very powerful actors: Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Halloween (1978)

Yep, it's Halloween and we're in Haddonfield, IL in 1963 and Michael Myers stabs his topless babysitter to death after her boyfriend leaves. Because I know the story well and yet it's been so long since I've seen this film, it was surprising to realise that there was a serious shock here. Michael walks out of the house and only when his parents turn up do we realise that he's a preteen kid. There are a lot of shocks here that only come with that sort of realisation because this became such an influential movie that we know what's going to happen from cultural immersion even if we don't remember the details from the film itself. Every slasher film ever made owes as much to this as it does to Bava's A Bay of Blood.

Needless to say, a murderous six year old kid who murders a girl in cold blood with a kitchen knife while wearing a clown costume gets promptly locked up in a psychiatric hospital. Fifteen years later, his doctor, Dr Sam Loomis, is driving a nurse to the hospital when he discovers that there are inmates wandering around the grounds in the rain. Michael Myers has escaped, and as the tagline suggests, this is 'the night he comes home'. Apparently he hasn't spoken a word in those fifteen years, and Loomis knows precisely what he's capable of. Very shortly thereafter, while Loomis is trying to persuade officialdom of the seriousness of the situation, Myers is back in Haddonfield stalking young Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her first film role.

Pleasence plays Dr Loomis as a serious man but one who is very worried, very scared and maybe a little oversure of what's going to happen. Then again he was proved right. He's as solid as you'd expect Donald Pleasence to be, and I wasn't likely to forget that. What I had forgotten though was that he's one of a very small number of adults in this film and none of them get a particularly large amount of screen time. Beyond Dr Loomis, there's the nurse in the introductory sequence, a victim, the voice of a teacher and Charles Cyphers as the local sheriff (named Leigh Brackett in tribute to the writer who died the year Halloween was released). And Michael Myers himself, of course, who is now the grand old age of 21 (or 23 according to the credits: they corrected their calculation for the sequel). Almost the entire film is taken up by kids and teenagers, as we only see one cop and nobody's parents.

Jamie Lee Curtis is surprisingly confident and seemingly established for her debut film at the age of 20. Pleasence has the lead but Curtis has by far the biggest part and it would turn her into one of the key scream queens. Depending on how you define a horror film, between six and eight of her first eight movies are horror films. Her next would be another for John Carpenter: The Fog and she'd return for Halloween II, the unrelated Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and, a full 16 years later, Halloween H20. There's another horror name here: P J Soles, who had dumped the pig's blood on Carrie two years earlier, though I tend to remember her best from Rock 'n' Roll High School, which isn't a patch on either of these horror films.

Michael Myers himself is played by Tony Moran, who slashed out a serious spot for himself in popular culture but hasn't done a lot else: his only two film appearances were both as Michael Myers, in Halloween and Halloween II. Amazingly he capitalised on such an iconic horror performance by appearing in episodes of The Waltons, CHiPs and something called California Fever, before retiring from the industry. Perhaps he was only in it because he's the brother of Erin Moran, Joanie Cunningham from Happy Days. Apparently he's a nice guy and he attends a lot of conventions where people say lots of good things about him, but he obviously doesn't want to get back in front of a camera.

As much as it's Tony Moran's portrayal that gets into all the clips, it's John Carpenter's film through and through. Early Carpenter is about as good as it gets in genre cinema, and this was only film number three. He made this after Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 and before The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing (there's an early nod to The Thing here, as it's showing on late night TV for the kids, four years before Carpenter remade it himself). I probably haven't seen this since the mid 80s and was impressed at how well it stands up. The only real problem with it, beyond a couple of little continuity errors and gaffes, is the fact that it is so simple: there's almost nothing to the plot at all. Simple is certainly effective, but in this instance it makes the film appear more like a template that everyone else can use to make their own films. It is that definitive.

Fatty and Mabel's Simple Life (1915)

Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand's simple life is down on the Keystone farm where Fatty wrestles with cows and Mabel kisses them. They're obviously a couple, though not a married one, and having a good time regardless how much chaos their animals cause. Needless to say, this being 1915 slapstick, it doesn't stay that way. He's soon on his ass in the mud and she's chasing her calf down, they're bitching at other and life certainly doesn't stay simple.

The wealthy squire's son, played by slapstick regular Al St John, comes to collect the mortgage but he has a note from his father that says that he can forget about that mortgage if only Mabel will marry his son. So the fathers are happily agreed but Mabel doesn't want any part of it. She wants Fatty so they have to find some way to elope before she becomes the squire's son's wife. Given that this is a Keystone comedy short so the cops (if not the kops) are soon on the trail.

Both Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle were notable talents who worked together frequently, but while Mabel was always a very capable foil for whoever she happened to be married to on screen, Fatty is very much an acquired taste. He certainly looked the part for silent film slapstick, with his oversize bulk, his baby face and a surprising agility, but somehow he just doesn't make me laugh the way that most of the slapstick comedians I enjoy do, possibly because he always seemed to be trying too hard. Often I find myself wishing someone else was playing his role, here Al St John who has fun playing the straight guy.

In fact this time out, I preferred Arbuckle as a director to an actor. He takes a while to get things moving, but once he does, it becomes quite a fun little short, if a completely predictable one. There are some cool stunts too: Al St John has some fun with a runaway car and then half the cast gets to cross swords with a tree and a well, often at the same time.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Dixie Dynamite (1976)

Director: Lee Frost
Stars: Warren Oates, Christopher George, Jane Anne Johnstone and Kathy McHaley

Made a year before Redneck Miller, this second half of the Chandler Cinemas hicksploitation ('hixploitation' just looks wrong) double bill has the added bonus of Warren Oates as the star. No, he's not Dixie Dynamite, thank goodness, but fortunately he's there, because he's an amazingly underrated actor. Unfortunately he gets to do precisely nothing because he's utterly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and could have been cut from the entire film without it being affected in the slightest.

We begin on the Eldridge farm in the backwoods of Georgia, which naturally is running a profitable moonshine operation. What would folks in the deepsouth do without moonshine to keep the money rolling in? Well, we get to find out soon enough, because the IRS show up and off they go a runnin'. You can patch together the ensuing car chase in your head even before I tell you that the corrupt cops chasing Tom Eldridge are in the pocket of a fat land baron. No, this isn't Hazzard County but it isn't far off.

Let's run through the checklist. Getting stuck behind the old folks going 15 mph? Check. Swerve on the freshly laid tar? Check. Oh hey, there's a fruit stand! Guess what's going to happen to that? And yeah, the road's out, so we'll head right through the chicken coop instead. And at the end of the chase Tom gets to leave the film because the cop following him is a crack shot who takes him out with one bullet. Maybe he had to be because every time a car crashes in this film, it crashes in precisely the same slope of land that Tom Eldridge crashed in. It's like the filmmakers got stuck with an insurance requirement that said that crashes were OK as long as they were all in the same place for safety. They don't even hide the tyre tracks from the previous crashes!

Anyway, that's the end of Tom so Boss Hogg, I mean Dade McCrutchen, gets to steal the Eldridge farm away at a bargain price. Dade is the stereotypical bad guy, big and fat and topless, but rich enough to own a cute girl on a lounger who swaps sides every thirty minutes to get the right tan. He owns the town, just as surely as Brad Wesley in Road House: the cops do his bidding and even the bank manager has to kowtow because he owns 80% of the bank's capital. And of course he runs the biggest still of them all. He's played ably with appropriate sliminess by Stanley Adams, a massively experienced actor whose film and TV credits both go as far as 1954.

Worst of Dade's cronies is Deputy Frank, played by Wes Bishop who co-wrote the story with director Lee Frost, so presumably got to pick this juicy part. It's Deputy Frank who shoots Tom Eldredge, then gets all Bad Lieutenant on his daughter Patsy. Then he kills another guy in a bar fight. I mean, critically injures another guy in a bar fight, entirely accidentally. Yeah. At least the sheriff is a good guy, or one that feels bad about being bad, like the bank manager who would love to get out from under Dade's thumb.

And what all these shenanigans end up with is Tom's two delightful and naturally very scantily clad daughters left in the lurch without a home. They're Dixie Lee and Patricia Ann Eldridge, better known as Dixie and Patsy, and they go hang out with Warren Oates instead, who teaches them to ride. Oates is a Moto Cross rider (it's separated into two words in this film) by the name of Mack and in return for the free lessons they take it upon themselves to get him back in shape within four weeks before the next race comes along, with a $1,000 prize for the winner.

Now this is an uphill struggle, given that he's drunk, can't fit into his leathers and has no bike, but he has two things very much in his favour. Firstly, Dixie and Patsy are enterprising young ladies who know what they want and how to get it and don't like to take no for an answer. Secondly, he has Steve McQueen for a stunt double so you won't be too surprised to find that it turns out really well. Apparently McQueen was bored after doing nothing on screen since 1974's The Towering Inferno, so took the $200 fee and no credit just for kicks.

And with Mack off at the races, winning lots of money, Dixie and Patsy want to get down to the real plot of this film, which is to get some revenge on Dade McCrutchen and his corrupt Deputy Frank. So, they steal a couple of bikes, a gun and a truck full of explosives. Guess where the title comes in... one clue: it wasn't anything to do with the quality of the movie. I should be a little fair here though: this is a fun ride. It has no pretensions of grandeur and like most hicksploitation movies, has more than a little humour thrown in. It's a better film than Redneck Miller and it's more fun too. But I don't have any special lines written down. Sigh.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Redneck Miller (1977)

Director: John Clayton
Star: Geoffrey Land

Much of the world traditionally and unfairly looks down on rednecks as inbred idiot hillbillies, a ridiculous stereotype that is often played up by such people themselves for the tourist dollar, thus propagating it even further. Yet there was a time in the seventies where they were seen instead as the tough guys. Clint Eastwood had a lot to do with that, I'm sure, with films like Every Which Way But Loose. The Dukes of Hazzard probably had even more to do with it, but this one came before both, made by Nu-South Films which says it all really.

Our anti-hero is DJ Miller who lives his life hard in the bizarre sort of way that perhaps the Dukes of Hazzard would do if they weren't stuck on primetime TV. He's a country music DJ who apparently doesn't have a first name, because his work must truly define who he is to the world. When not working at WCCA, he seems to spend his time going to one bar after another to take money off people, and to hit people for dancing with his girl who isn't his girl. On the few free moments he has from barhopping he sleeps with his listeners while their husbands are away. After all, the motto of the film must be: 'women come and go, trucks and bikes are forever'.

Anyway, DJ Miller leaves his 15 year old squeeze at the beginning of our movie to go do his thing, but through a quirk of circumstance ends up on the wrong side of an inept set of black villains, which sets up our action comedy of errors in motion. Some guy on a bike has ripped off SuperMac. His henchmen, Preacher, with his feathered hat, and Foxy, who must be the only black Foxy in a movie to ever be male, think it's DJ. They can see the bikes racked up in his star spangled pickup truck, so it must be him. Movie logic rocks.

Now beyond being called Preacher and Foxy, these are black guys with guns in the deepsouth, so you can imagine what sort of business they're in, and off they go to let SuperMac know the score. And SuperMac is mean, real mean. At least so he says. DJ Miller only has to angry and he can wipe out all three of them in one punch. Yes, it's that sort of movie. It's the sort of movie that has awesome car chases like the one where one of these dumb black guys chases DJ in a circle in a parking lot. It's even the sort of movie that has scantily clad young ladies leaning over open car bonnets because they've broken down and need assistance.

And this one's the girlfriend of SuperMac. Convenient, huh? You can practically write the script yourself but it takes a certain kind of talent to take it all to that next level and make a real exploitation film to be enjoyed by crowds like ours three decades later. No wonder Quentin Tarantino took it to the LA Grindhouse Festival, it's appropriate. This one scenes where the black gangsters try not to laugh at the dialogue they've been given. And our anti-hero has the same trouble.

As I take notes while watching these exploitation gems at Chandler Cinemas, I've got into the habit of writing down the best lines. These films are not usually great films but they're often great exploitation films, with examples of amazing dialogue that out of context would not be believed. This may have been the movie I started this habit during, because there are a few stunners. Best of all is when one of DJ's lady friends points out that he was going to let the bad guys rape her. His response, believe it or not, is: 'You can take a lot of loving but I can only get killed once!' It's films like this that get kids into trouble because they see guys like DJ Miller getting so much pussy they can't remember the names attached and try out the lines themselves, with inevitably disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately IMDb doesn't have a lot of credits populated for Redneck Miller. All I know for sure is that the title character is played by Geoffrey Land, in between Black Heat and Doctor Dracula. Yeah, he has the sort of short career that was designed for Chandler Cinemas! He's even reappeared on our screens since, in 1975's Blazing Stewardesses, made by exploitation legend Al Adamson, who directed six of the nine films Land appeared in. I believe I have the first of them, 1969's The Female Bunch on VHS but unfortunately I'm still stuck without the ability to play PAL tapes. One day soon. Or maybe Andrea will beat me to it.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

A decade after The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki wasn't just some new guy any more. He'd made Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which would have been enough for anyone, but then he followed up with Castle in the Sky and My Neighbour Totoro. The man could do no wrong, and then he went on to greater and greater heights with every release. There's a wonderful message board thread on his page at IMDb where people talk about what they feel Miyazaki's best film is, and it's very telling that not just every one of his films gets votes from someone, but half of them also get the accolade of best animated film of all time. Miyazaki really is up there at the pinnacle of his profession. There's bad animation, mediocre animation, good animation, and then somewhere above all that there's Miyazaki for everyone else to look up at and marvel.

Two hours ago I thought I'd finally seen all of his features when I caught up with The Castle of Cagliostro, but it seems that he caught me on the hop by releasing Ponyo on the Cliff in Japan four days ago. Not only am I now one short again but I don't even have the option of going to see it. I saw all but this one as they should be seen: in original widescreen and in the original Japanese language, with English subtitles. This one was my first Miyazaki but I caught it on an Encore channel in full screen and dubbed into English. Subseqently it became my least favourite. Now I've finally seen it properly, I can appreciate it even more but it does still seem a little lacking when compared to some of the others.

We kick off in northwest Koriko, where Kiki is about to leave home. She's a thirteen year old witch and when a witch turns thirteen, tradition has it that she leave home for a whole year for training and to effectively find her place in the world. So her mother hands down her own broomstick and off she flies to parts unknown, with her cat Jiji in tow. She definitely has plenty of learning to do and hasn't even worked out her special skill yet. In fact she didn't even know that she had to work out her special skill until she met up with another young witch in the air, who tells her so.

They shelter from a storm in a train carriage full of hay, only to find that the train moves on while she's asleep and she ends up in a big town on the coast, where people aren't quite used to witches. They keep asking to talk to her parents or for her to provide identification and obey the law. A young boy on a bicycle distracts a cop who's asking plenty of questions long enough for her to escape but that just makes her mad at him, and she escapes from his questions on a quest for somewhere to be.

Outside a bakery called Gutiokipanja, she finds her place. A mother accidentally leaves her baby's pacifier in the bakery, so she chips in to fly down and deliver it before the baby wakes up. Suddenly, courtesy of the owner, a lady called Osono (who isn't large, she's pregnant), she has an attic to live in and to run a business from, a phone to use and free breakfast, all for the price of helping out in the bakery. Hence Kiki's Delivery Service is born.

There's a lot of magic here. Miyazaki has a knack of making simple films that are full of reality that it knocks our socks off and we can't help but fight back a tear or a gasp or some other reaction that we're not supposed to feel any more as adults. Like most of his lead characters, Kiki is young and discovering who she is, and we get to discover along with her. It's not just about independence, though that's the heart of it; it's about maturity and confidence. There's a major thread of the story where Kiki loses her confidence and with it her magical powers. The scene when she finds she can't understand Jiji, her cat, is a peach.

On her voyage of discovery she meets a set of delightful characters: Osono, who runs the bakery while she's pregnant; a young artist who lives in a forest and paints crows from her cottage roof; Tombo, the boy with the bicycle, who has dreams of flying. My favourites may well be the pair of doddering yet adventurous old women who make herring and pumpkin pie, only to have said pie disdainfully discarded by the young relative to whom Kiki delivers it, after much effort and heartache. It's down to either the old women or the sleepy dog, who rocks.

There's action here too, not just introspection. You can imagine what happens when Tombo flies off into the air, attached to a cable trailing from a runaway dirigible called the Freedom Adventurer. He always wanted to fly but this isn't quite how he'd envisaged it and it's up to Kiki to help him out. The name of the dirigible is important, as the incident for Tombo equates to merely travelling to this town for Kiki. Thirteen years old and spending a year away from home in a place where she doesn't know anyone... that definitely sounds like a freedom adventurer.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Six years before founding Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, who has to be the most consistent director in the history of film, directed his debut film, a feature length accompaniment to the Lupin III anime series on TV. This is 1979 so the film certainly looks dated but it's full of character, and there are elements that remind of later Miyazaki work like the autogyro and some of the equipment designs. While there are certainly some of the short loops that are characteristic of TV work, they're fewer than I expected and the backgrounds are more detailed. In short for a 30 year old anime feature, it looks very good indeed.

Lupin III is the star. He's really Arsene Lupin III, the grandson of the great French thief Arsene Lupin, as hijacked by the Japanese and turned into an industry. After first appearing in a manga by the artist Monkey Punch, he's appeared in no end of manga, TV episodes, OVAs, feature films and TV specials, games, you name it. In fact there's been a 90 minute TV special every year since 1989, which makes twenty so far. That's a lot to catch up with, but the Lupin III feature directed by Miyazaki can't be a bad place to start. On the cover of my Manga Entertainment special edition DVD, no less a name than Steven Spielberg describes it as 'one of the greatest adventure movies of all time' and it certainly has as many cliffhangers as an Indiana Jones film.

After a brief introduction in which Lupin and Jugin, his partner in crime, successfully steal five billion from a Monaco casino vault, only to discover that they're all counterfeit, the pair hightail it over to the Duchy of Cagliostro, the smallest sovereign state in Europe and apparently the source of the goat bills, as Lupin refers to them. However before they can investigate, they get caught up in a mystery. On a cliff road, a young lady in a wedding dress and a small car is being chased by suspicious characters in a much bigger car and Lupin has to get right into the middle of it.

He rescues her from the bad guys, at least for a short moment. She leaves him at the bottom of a cliff knocked out by a falling branch only to be captured by the bad guys again. At least she leaves him with a glove that contains a ring, and the ring is the key to the mystery. The evil regent, Count Cagliostro by name, is plotting to marry the daughter of the Grand Duke and Duchess, who were killed seven years earlier when their palace was burned to the ground. Each is from one of the ancient houses of Cagoliostro, and there's an equally ancient legend about how some hidden treasure will appear when the two houses are united. The secret is in their rings and they carry one each.

Needless to say Lupin wants in for a whole host of reasons. He's a thief by trade so treasure is always a magnet. He's interested in the counterfeiting for professional reasons. There's a princess to rescue, Lady Clarisse, and he's as much of a womaniser as he is a thief. And apparently there's a history here too: he's been here before, a decade earlier, and so knows a little bit about what's going on and who the main players in the game are. What makes him so fascinating is that beyond being a great antihero, he's a combination of a number of characters, some of whom hadn't even been created in 1979.

According to Wikipedia, Rob Lineberger of DVD Verdict described Lupin III as 'James Bond meets Charlie's Angels with Scooby Doo sensibilities.' There's certainly plenty of all of those, but there's a lot of Indiana Jones too. The gadgets are Bond but the cliffhanging is more Indy, especially when we see him read some dead language called Capran inscribed on the rings. He doesn't look like Indy though, he looks more like a rather well dressed chimp. He even gets to do a few of those unrealistic over the top stunts that plagued the last Indy film. He has plenty of depth as a character though, thus explaining much of his abiding popularity in Japan. We enjoy the stunts and the antics, but it's Lupin himself that keeps us fascinated.

He's far from the only regular character. I've seen the odd episode of the series but none of the other films and don't have much background to the characters, but Jigen is not the only name that fans would recognise. There's a renegade samurai called Goemon who gets very little to do here; an on again, off again girlfriend and rival called Fujiko, who plays whichever side gets her a better deal; and there's Inspector Zenigata of Interpol, Lupin's nemesis. Like Lupin himself, they're all characters that invite further attention and I'll definitely have to find some more of the films, even if they're not likely to be up to the standards of this one. This must be Miyazaki's worst film and yet its notably better than most people's best.

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Fugitive Kind (1959)

Valentine Xavier would seem to be a memorable name for a character, even in a film full of characters with memorable names (Dog Hamma, Ruby Lightfoot, Uncle Pleasant), but he goes by Snakeskin. He's played by Marlon Brando, who is always great in situations like the one we see him in first: explaining himself to a new Orleans judge. He promises to get out of town and he does, taking his guitar with him, but when his car breaks down, he promptly ends up straight back in jail. At least this time he's just sleeping the night in a dry cell with the door open, with the blessings of the sheriff's wife, and he isn't in trouble in the slightest. At least not yet.

Vee Talbot, the sheriff's wife, has a trusting heart and she trusts that Snakeskin is going to turn over a new leaf, so gets him a job in a store run by Lady Torrance. Her husband is about to return from a spell in the hospital and won't be able to work himself, so Lady's going to need some help. But this is Brando and his character is called Snakeskin so it can't be too much of a surprise to find that he ends up bucking everyone's expectations and becoming a catalyst through whom they find resolution in their lives. Just as he appears to become conventional, in flits Carol Cutrere, a wild free spirit who's been banned from what seems like everywhere. She recognises him from a new year's party, and promptly shakes up everything.

She's played by Joanne Woodward and she's the sort of flighty character who steals scenes left and right, flouncing around in a bar that she shouldn't be in, stirring up everyone and leaving people on the floor when she leaves. She reminds me of Courtney Love, and the shock of blonde hair helps the comparison. Yet she's playing opposite Brando, who has a knack of stopping people stealing his scenes by simply being in them. I'm not a worshipper at the altars of the cult of Brando, but he was certainly a very powerful presence and the charisma just dripped off him.

Here he plays a very Brando type of role, though that seems strange to say given that he was such a versatile talent. He's quiet but strong, like a powderkeg; he's outwardly polite, but always giving the impression that it's done not through courtesy but necessity; and he does a lot of explaining, as if to define who he is and why he's there. He talks about a kind of person who 'don't belong no place at all', and illustrates the concept with a story about a bird that has no legs and so lives on the wing, only touching ground when it dies. I'm sure that This Little Bird, a song I know by Jewel but apparently written by Marianne Faithfull, must have referenced this story, unless they both reference a common source.

It's a powerful film and it builds very well indeed but it has flaws and characters who don't go anywhere, and the ending is disappointing. Brando is dominant here and Woodward is excellent also in the other lead. Anna Magnani is the real co-star though as Lady Torrance, and she's a worthy foil for Brando, with some serious fire raging between the pair of them on screen. As her vicious husband, Victor Jory has a bizarre role given that he's covered in sweat for the entire film. Maureen Stapleton is the other name to watch, as the sheriff's wife who is out of place in the small town herself, but the other one to really pay attention to is the one behind the writing.

This is a Tennessee Williams play, one that he obviously cared deeply for because he worked at it for a long while. He wrote it as Battle of Angels in 1939, though it wasn't produced until it had become Orpheus Descending in 1957. He then turned it into a screenplay himself for Sidney Lumet to film, and its as tumultuous as A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Night of the Iguana. Lumet still doesn't have an Oscar to his name, beyond a honorary award in 2005, though he has directed a seriously powerful set of films over sixty years. By this point he had directed 12 Angry Men, which ought to be enough for anyone, but would go on to Long Day's Journey into Night, The Hill, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Murder on the Orient Express and The Verdict. I guess we can forgive him The Wiz.

Rough Seas (1931)

The war is over, the first one that is, and the yanks are on their way home from France. However boarding at Quai No 13 isn't just Pvt Charley Chase, but his French girlfriend and his pet monkey too, surreptitiously as they certainly aren't allowed in the slightest. As you can imagine, this script pretty much writes itself. It's stunningly overacted, as you might expect from a bunch of silent film actors appearing in a 1931 sound film, but Charley Chase surprises us with a reasonably good singing voice, even when singing octaves below his normal range, if indeed he wasn't dubbed. However he's outacted by the monkey, and that's not good.

The script is clunky and predicatable and Chase starts out very dorky indeed, though his character improves as the film goes on. His French girlfriend who he smuggles on board is played by Thelma Todd, a notable talent who has precisely nothing to do here. In fact her best scene is one when she's entirely contained in a sack on Charley's back, but for a single shapely leg stuck out of a hole. Admittedly there's only a 27 minute running time but surely there could be have been more opportunity than she got.

The film was directed by Charley's younger brother James Parrott, even though both were going under pseudonyms. Charley Chase's real name was Charles Parrott and his brother James was really a Paul, which is what he tended to use when acting.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I've been a horror fan every since I can remember. When I was a kid and my sister had a TV and I didn't, I'd stay up to watch late night Hammer films in her room. Yet it took me until the end of the millennium to see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the most notorious and powerful horror films of them all, mostly because it was banned outright in England and so wasn't easy to get hold of. By the end of the 20th century though, the censors had lost their influence mostly through the UK having to obey wider European law on certan things, and I picked up a double disc DVD version. Watching this film was literally the last thing I did in the year 2000.

That double disc DVD mysteriously disappeared, maybe during my move to the States, but IFC are showing it, so now's a good time to catch up with it again and see if it feels as powerful today as it did on my first viewing, a quarter of a century later. I'm in interesting company; my 17 year old stepson, another confirmed horror fan, has never seen it before, and my wife saw it at a drive in at the age of fifteen: it was her first date movie with her previous husband. That could explain a lot.

It opens with a bizarre art piece, a badly decomposed corpse wired to a monument, and news footage talking about graverobbing and a dozen empty crypts. Then, after an abstract credit sequence backed by quiet newscaster and pre-industrial music, we visit the graveyard again in the company of Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin. Apparently their grandfather was buried there and they want to make sure that nothing happened to his grave, given the news stories. After that they drive on, with a bunch of friends, to his house, which is deserted and derelict.

Given that this is a horror movie you know that doesn't bode well, and with a title like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it's not going to be pretty. A drunk at the graveyard rattles on that 'things happen hereabout they don't tell about', and we soon found out what he means. We're in the backwoods of Texas in August 1973 and the sun is burning down through the clouds on everything around.

They pass a slaughterhouse, prompting Franklin to enthuse about how his uncle worked at one and slaughtered cows with a sledgehammer, upsetting the vegetarian of the bunch who doesn't believe anyone should kill animals for food. They pick up a twitchy looking hitchhiker with a little mojo bag containing pictures of the cows he'd killed, a knife which he uses to cut a gash in the palm of his hand and an old camera that he uses to take a picture of everyone. When they don't want to pay him two bucks for it, he burns it up and freaks out, prompting them to dump on the side of the road, where he smears blood on their van before they can drive away.

They stop for gas, but the gas station is all out, so as soon as a couple of them realise that there's a house nearby with a generator running outside, they naturally head over to see if they can buy some. What they find is a house full of skins, skulls and artwork made out of bones; plus a huge guy who wears a mask made of human skin, carries a wide variety of tools (not least a chainsaw), and can move quicker than you'd expect for man his size. And they haven't met the rest of the family yet.

I remember reading somewhere that Tobe Hooper deliberately tried as to get a low rating from the ratings board and that would fit, because there's very little of the traditional horror elements. There's hardly any gore in the entire film, though there's a little blood here and there. There's no sex at all, in fact nobody even gets topless. There's no bad language beyond one use of the word 'bitch'. In fact this is the sort of horror film that the Mormons would watch, at least on the face of it. However I have a feeling they wouldn't like what they saw.

Unless their checklists have got a lot better, they don't include the sort of things that impress most here and contribute most to why this is a freaky, disturbing, mad ride. It's the bones that do it here, the wide range of skulls and bones and what they're used for. It's the lunatics and their mindset. It's Leatherface chasing after Sally Hardesty at full speed with a buzzing chainsaw. What I remembered most about it were the screams, mostly of Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty.

Her big scenes in the last third of the movie are overdone but deliberately so, and they are scarier to me than any of the big budget gorefests. She's not stuck in a situation where we wonder about how she'll escape. The people she's with aren't people you can reason with or outwit. She's stuck in a situation that we wonder what she'll become even if she escapes and who's to say that she will anyway? That's what's disturbing here: we literally have no idea what's going to come next. The rulebook is gone.

Needless to say, the story is fiction, but it has a root in reality, in fact the same reality as a number of other famous films. The root of the story comes from Ed Gein, a Wisconsin killer who went insane after the death of his deeply religious and bitter mother, who was the only person he loved. He dug up corpses from the graveyard and used the bones to make art. He used human skin to make lampshades or upholster his furniture. He stuck skulls on his bedposts. He even used skin to make his clothes, wearing a woman suit in a similar way to the way Buffalo Bill does in The Silence of the Lambs, a second film influenced by Gein. A third famous Gein-inspired film is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. That's a serious cinematic influence for one man to have, and that's not a complete list. Gein died in mental hospital in 1984, where he spent most of his life after being acquitted on grounds of insanity.

The cast were all unknowns, as indeed were the filmmakers at the time. Some never appeared in another film ever again, such as Allen Danziger and Teri McMinn, who both have major roles here. Some moved mostly to TV, such as William Vail. Jim Siedow and Paul A Partain notched up a few roles in films but not many. Edwin Neal, the freaky hitchhiker, didn't act again for over a decade but eventually went on to Japanese TV shows, including a major role as Lord Zedd in Power Rangers. Even Marilyn Burns, who is very believable indeed as Sally, almost the definitive film screaming victim, would only go on to a handful of further films, including an anonymous bit part in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The 6' 4" Icelandic actor Gunnar Hansen who played Leatherface went on to the longest career of any of the actors in this film, reprising his role a number of times. However he resisted acting for a long while, preferring to write, and so his roles are rare until the 21st century when he became far more prolific. Tobe Hooper, writer and director, was the only other name to really continue in the business, going on to become a legend of the horror genre, though the horror films he's worked on are versatile in tone, from early nasties like Eaten Alive and The Mutilator to more accessible films like the TV version of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, Invaders from Mars and the first Poltergeist film.

And yes, it's as powerful today as it was on my first viewing in 2000 and I'm still sure it must have truly freaked people out in 1974. No wonder it's a cult classic. It's an awesome example of just what can be done without a huge budget or any recognisable names whatsoever, and it's one of the freakiest and most intensely disturbing films ever released.

Tomorrow We Live (1942)

While Ricardo Cortez almost exactly a hundred films in his career, that career slacked over substantially towards its end. The first half of his credits them came in the first eight years, preceded by a couple of odd uncredited roles, but his last ten films took double that time, from this one in 1942 to the end, in a film appropriately titled The Last Hurrah in 1958. He'd fallen a long way in a decade and a half.

In 1926 he was one of the great romantic leading men of the silent era, credited above Greta Garbo in Torrent. In 1941 he was Sam Spade in the original version of The Maltese Falcon. He worked his way down through the precodes, entries in thirties detective series and eventually to things like this, for a studio called Atlantis Pictures and a director like Edgar G Ulmer, who was a seriously talented man but one constrained by insanely tight budgets.

This one opens like a silent film, with looks and suggestions set to the musical accompaniment of a single on the jukebox at a greasy spoon cafe. At a table Julie Bronson and her father, who runs the place, are having a scene, while mysterious lights flicker outside, and they're far from the only things mysterious around here. Julie has been back home from school for four weeks and is asking a lot of questions, given that her dad paid her way through college, as regular as clockwork, but the cafe has hardly any customers.

It's all about the Ghost, a local gangster who uses the cafe shed for some nefarious purposes. Julie herself has some mystery to her, given that she seems to have been doing great in college, before quitting with a few months to go. The Ghost is mysterious too, of course. How could he not be with a name like the Ghost? He's a gangster, nightclub owner, empire builder... and he sees himself as a ladies' man too. He says he has a 'talent for organisation', which is a stunningly obvious euphemism (there are strong similarities to Lucky Luciano) but is literal too: he even has a file in his cabinet marked 'Julie Bronson, Pop's Daughter'. Needless to say, he has serious designs on her and he has a magnetism that nearly wins her over on their first meeting but then that would hardly lead to much of a film, would it?

Tomorrow We Live has far more than a basic romance, and every bit of it is from the standard low budget pulp noir thriller plotbook. Everyone seems to be something but is something else too, hidden behind a front (even Pop has his hidden past) and everybody wants something. The Ghost only has a couple of years to live and he wants Julie. Big Charlie is the competition and he wants the Ghost's territory. Pop wants to get out from under the weight of deception. Julie wants Lt Bob Lord, local army guy, and Lt Bob Lord wants Julie. People even say things like 'What could possibly happen?' It's that sort of film.

Luckily everyone feels right. Cortez proves he still has charm as the Ghost, Jean Parker brings class to the role of Julie Bronson and Emmett Lynn, who plays Pop, was always a great grubby old man. He tended to play the sort of roles that Walter Brennan played: sidekicks, prospectors, people with names like Buckskin Blodgett. You get the impression that half the characters he played ought to have been called Pop even if they weren't. The rest of the cast are low budget actors playing low budget parts and they do their jobs fine.

The downside is that this is a 64 minute formula film, and whatever a talent like Edgar G Ulmer throws at it, it inevitably still ends up as a 64 minute formula film. I like the line, 'Last night was a long time ago,' but this was 1942 so it turns into a blatant propaganda film to back up the army's part in the war with lines like, 'Hitler? Why that cheap punk! He's an amateur.' The army become the 'little people' of America, 'little men, honest men, big with the dignity of toil and strong with the courage of decency'. The gangsters are 'all noise and bluff', 'mad dogs' who 'die of their own venom'. Lord has a showdown with the Ghost at his office at the Dunes and tells him that 'Birchesgarten must look like this.'

Ten minutes later we have a fitting finale, then a tacked on propaganda scene, all flags and howitzers and the inevitable happy ending for the code era. The propaganda doesn't really grate, because hey, it was 1942 and the Americans had finally turned up for the war and were trying to persuade their country that it was justified. What grates is that it's not a propaganda film, it's a low budget gangster film that has propaganda scenes grafted in with no attempt to make them fit, no attempt at all. Sigh.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Brute Force (1947)

With a title like Brute Force, you can be sure this one isn't going to be a walk in the park. That's backed up by having Burt Lancaster in the lead, as he would fit in a film with this title even if he was just a silhouette against a wall. He was just drawn that way. To make him fit even better though, he plays a tough inmate at the Westgate Penitentiary burning to get out because his wife is dying of cancer but refuses to get treatment until he's with her. Joe Collins is his name, he's well respected by his fellows and his guards, though his influence is very noticed by the chief guard, Capt Munsey.

Lancaster is fine but it's Munsey that's the most dominant character, even though he's small and flimsy and wouldn't stand up to Collins in a fight for more than a couple of punches. He uses his brain and his position to get places and he walks a whole bunch of lines with awesome control and balance, manoeuvering his way with threats both subtle and not so subtle. With a weak warden and a bright but generally passive doctor as his fellow officials, he's the power behind the throne well on his way to sitting in it himself.

In this company he appeared to me like an Gestapo officer in a room full of German army officers. It doesn't matter how many stripes they have, he's the dangerous one and he's played with panache by Hume Cronyn. Capt Munsey is the one with the network of informants, always eager to add more, and one of them tells him about Collins's break. Collins plans to get out, Munsey plans to let him try but fail and make himself the hero of the day in the process.

The ensuing cat and mouse activity of these two lead characters is what forms our story. There are various little stories too woven in and amongst the big one, showing us who the various characters were outside the walls and how they came to be inside them. One is a petty thief fiddling his company's books to give his wife a fur coat, another is a soldier with a great love in Italy. Charles Bickford plays a gang man and long term prisoner whose hopes for parole are dashed, making him desperate.

I got the impression early on that the film wanted to be really tough, but it doesn't play that way. It's no easy ride, that's for sure, but it's far more psychological than it is vicious. It's no social story like the old Warner Brothers prison dramas, but it's a character study. It's a serious film, but it has light hearted moments. It's an action film, though the action takes a long while to come. Most of all though it's a thriller, as we try to guess at what twists the scriptwriters have in store for us, and especially on that front it delivers. The ending is fitting and well deserved and it doesn't cheat anyone.

Lancaster is fine, as I'm learning he usually was. Charles Bickford is solid as always and Hume Cronyn is awesome. The director Jules Dassin was a great and underrated director. I've seen six of his films now, from 1941's The Tell-Tale Heart to 1964's Topkapi, and two of them are absolute classics: The Naked City and Rififi. There are others here too, some of which I know, and this film surprised me by nudging me over half of the entire filmography of one of the supporting actors: Sir Lancelot, a calypso singer from the West Indies, who sings more lines than he speaks here. I've seen him in a number of Val Lewton films, plus To Have and Have Not and Zombies on Broadway. That looks like the best of them but it'll be interesting to see the rest.

Black Magic (1949)

I've seen a lot of films called Black Magic. This one came out in 1949 and was set in Paris in 1848, 101 years earlier. We begin at the house of Alexandre Dumas, where Dumas pere (Berry Kroeger) explains to Dumas fils (a lively and bright eyed Raymond Burr) about the man who is filling his mind with fever and making his pen very busy indeed. With so many great novels behind him, he's driven by this story. The character is Count Cagliostro, initially known as Joseph Balsamo, who we first meet as a young gypsy brat played by Annielo Mele, who sinks his teeth into the hand of the Viscount de Montagne, who has condemned his parents to death as devils.

Soon he's a grown up gypsy brat, played by no less an actor than Orson Welles himself. He's hawking snake oil when he's discovered by Dr Franz Mesmer, at this point a scientist struggling to make his theories accepted. Mesmer sees Balsamo cure a woman who has accidentally drunk lamp oil, using only the power of hypnotism. Balsamo has no clue what hypnotism is, he's just a natural, but Mesmer knows precisely what it is. Unfortunately for him, once educated into what this talent really is, Balsamo has no interest in helping Mesmer prove anything when he can help himself, all the way to the side of the king in Paris.

Welles has fun with the part, and what he does would be seen as dynamic and powerful for any other actor. However this is Orson Welles and he's actually being subtle and restrained in a role that had lots of potential for wild and flamboyant overacting. He doesn't just rise in power, he runs a set of games to achieve that power. By chance when travelling through France he comes upon the man who killed his parents, the Viscount de Montagne. De Montagne has his own plans for power, having kidnapped a young lady called Lorenza who is the spitting image of Marie Antoinette, wife of the Dauphin. Cagliostro instead uses her in his own plans, to obtain both power and revenge, and he charges De Montagne 5000 francs to boot along with an introduction at the court of King Louis XV.

Surprisingly the film doesn't just belong to Welles, though nobody else is dominant enough to steal it from him. Instead it becomes a consistent film with quite a few decent performances: from Nancy Guild in a dual role as Lorenza and Marie Antoinette; from Akim Tamiroff and Valentina Cortese as the gypsies who accompany Balsamo all the way through his career; Margot Grahame as Madame duBarry, the consort of Louis XV. None are outstanding, but all are decent and the story runs along nicely in a very strong linear fashion in one long flashback, unencumbered by fiendish complexities. These would have been as easy to throw into the mix as overacting, but they aren't needed because of the careful manoeuvres that really provide our story.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Three... Extremes (2004)

Directors: Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook and Takashi Miike

For some reason the 2004 Asian film Saam gaang yi was released in the West as Three... Extremes, while its 2002 predecessor Saam gaang became Three Extremes 2. Maybe the key to that bizarre titling is that the original was successful but the followup was made by some seriously important names even to a western audience. Just look at the directors for a start: Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook and Takashi Miike. Each gets forty minutes or so to play with and each comes up with a memorable film.

Park is the Korean director of JSA: Joint Security Area and the trilogy of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Miike from Japan is legendary for gory shockers like Ichi the Killer and Audition but who has a seriously versatile talent. The Chinese director Fruit Chan may be the least known of the three, at least to western eyes, but he has a string of award winning films to his credit. He opens up with a segment called Dumplings, which is the most memorable of the three from a pure ick factor and it was duly expanded into a feature length movie. It features Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling from no end of western films and a guest appearance by Tony Leung Ka-Fei, along with cinematography by the unparalleled Christopher Doyle.

It plays off the quest for physical perfection via diet and obviously has the intention of persuading us to never eat dumplings again. The dumplings in this film are made by Aunt Mei, played by Bai Ling, and they're special dumplings that have special rejuvenating powers. Mrs Li is the customer, a former actress played by Miriam Yeung, who looks young but wants to look younger still, especially as she's feeling that her husband is paying less attention to her. However she has to deal with the knowledge of Aunt Mei's secret ingredient, and while I won't spoil that I'm sure you can imagine that it's something really really bad.

Park's segment, Cut, is the most divinely twisted, as you'd expect. It features Lee Byung-hung from JSA: Joint Security Area as a film director called Ryu Ji-ho, along with Lim Won-hee and Gang Hye-jung and with a special appearance by Yum Jung-ah as a actress playing a vampire in one of Ryu's films. Ryu seems to be a good guy, and bizarrely that turns out to be his undoing. A complete nutjob extra who has appeared in walk on parts in all five of his films masterminds a performance of his own that preys on his goodness.

The nutjob's twisted logic suggests that it's somehow OK to be a bad guy if you're rich because hey, the world sucks anyway. If a good guy is rich too then it throws everything out of balance. So he tangles the director's wife up in a spider web of ropes at her piano and begins chopping her fingers off with an axe. He gives Ryu, who he ties to the wall with a bungee cord, one way of saving her: to strangle a young girl to death right there in the room. Needless to say there are twists and they're all twisted and sadistic and very cool indeed. Lee is excellent, as is Gang Hye-jung as his wife, Mi-Ran, but they're both overshadowed by Lim Won-hee as the twisted extra. He gets a versatile and quirky role, the sort of part I'd expect Park to cast Ha-kyun Shin in, and he excels, with his movements, his straight face and his guttural sounds. Very cool indeed.

Miike's film is Box, very unlike anything I've seen Miike direct before. It's about a left handed novelist (I can't help feeling that the left handed part means something, but I can't work out what) called Kyoko who can't type. She used to be one of a pair of sisters who performed in a magical contortionist act which ended very badly, with her sister Shoko burned to death in a box and the magician scarred and gone. Her sister is still around, though we don't really know whether it's as a ghost or as a tortured figment of her imagination.

It's a slow story, but it has female Asian contortionist twins in it and there's not much better in this wide world than female Asian contortionist twins. The acting is decent and is focused almost entirely around two actors: Kyoko Hasegawa as her namesake Kyoko and Atsuro Watabe in a double role. However it's not the acting that makes this one, it's the way that the film is put together. Much of it is done without sound, though it's not silent. It's just very careful in its very selective use of sound to highlight certain things. It's clever and beautiful, while containing much that is fragmented and jerky in that freaky jerky Japanese way.

Overall, the three stories are very different and perhaps don't fit entirely well together, but each is solid in its own way and I'm very interested in seeing the first Three... Extremes film, Three... Extremes 2.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Perils of Pauline (1947)

However great Bad Lieutenant may be, after watching it a comedy is certainly needed to change the mood and this might just be the only one I have on the DVR. It's a musical comedy biopic, of all things, of Pearl White, the lady who thrilled silent movie audiences in cliffhangers like 1914's The Perils of Pauline, from where this film gets its title. The lady is played by Betty Hutton, who's one of those 40s/50s actors fans know from major musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and I know from next to nothing. I think I've seen her in one film: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, in which she was good but reminded too much of Ginger Rogers.

She starts out in some sort of sweatshop making dresses, but escapes in the company of a theatrical client, Julia Gibbs who proves to be her road into show business, which starts with her thrust onto the stage in front of a belligerent crowd waiting too long for Romeo and Juliet. She wins them over with a lively song and dance and so becomes a member of the Farrington Players. She works her way up through the ranks but her talent is for comedy, even when it isn't appropriate. Her first appearance in a Farrington Players production is aptly described as an entrance 'like a 21 gun salute', and her second is improved mostly by Mike Farrington tying her hands together under her ample dress to keep her from waving them around.

Finally quitting from the company, after being talked down to yet again by the man she's fallen for, she finds work only in the second class profession of the movie industry. However while Mike Farrington struggles to work on the stage, Pearl White becomes the biggest thing in pictures, starring as the original and very probably cliffhanging heroine of them all. She's the serial queen that inspired Penelope Pitstop, who I watched what seemed like every night on Wacky Races and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.

Betty Hutton has a blast with this part, sometimes literally. Then again there's so much that could have thrown into a film about the making of The Perils of Pauline that this seems sadly lacking. The most dynamic scene is the one where Pearl hires Mike Farrington as her leading man and he demonstrates overacting in a rescue scene. It's a great scene but it's a little unfair on Pearl White, who was supposed to be the subject of this biopic, given that she was the huge star, very possibly the biggest of them all in 1914, and one who made a name for herself by doing all her own stunts.

It's a coin toss as to whether Pearl or Douglas Fairbanks Sr was the silent era's Jackie Chan, and yet that side of things was almost ignored entirely here, at least until she has to raise Liberty Bonds and that isn't even on screen. If you can believe it we only see her in one film, the title picture. She performs more songs here than she does stunts, and that seems somehow heretical. We silent film afficionados have to content ourselves with a quick montage of cliffhangers and the presence in the cast of a number of silent comedy legends, such as Snub Pollard, Chester Conklin and Paul Panzer, who was the villain in the original serial, The Perils of Pauline.

The story here is predictable and only half to do with reality, half being perhaps a little generous. Most of it seems to be about this great romance she has with the man who first put her on the stage. In reality, his name was Victor Sutherland, and they'd married and divorced by 1914. She'd marry again in 1919 for a couple of years, but somehow this film paints a whole new picture. That always saddens me when it comes to biopics, because anyone who really warrants a biopic is interesting enough to make such a thing fascinating enough without changing everything for no apparent reason. I'd love to see a real biography of Pearl White, but this isn't it. It has plenty to watch but not much of that has to do with her in the slightest. It mostly has to do with Betty Hutton's version of Pearl White; Billy De Wolfe's serial villain Timmy Timmons; William Demarest's half genius, half con man film director, George McGuire; and Constance Collier's dynamic Julia Gibbs.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

The Lieutenant, who doesn't have a name, has more than a few problems. Hell, he starts snorting coke outside his kids' school the moment he drops them off. He doesn't just have a drug problem, he has a gambling problem too, slapping tens of thousands of dollars of his own money on the World Series. He has a drink problem, adding hard liquor to cocaine and heroin and whatever else he's doing. And he has a sex problem, a violence problem and a temper problem. When a baseball game doesn't go the way he wants, he shoots the radio, while he's driving down a crowded street. From the opening scenes, it would seem that there aren't many problems he doesn't have.

He's doesn't seem to have a single redeeming feature, being morally corrupt to a rather stunning degree and it becomes difficult to watch the depths to which he trawls. He coerces a couple of young ladies into giving him sexual favours in return for not hauling them in for a minor vehicle offence. He tries to surreptiously retrieve drugs from a crime scene. At a convenience store, he forces a couple of thieves to fork over the money they stole but we know that he isn't going to return it to the owner. When he ends up $60,000 in the hole on a game and wants to double or nothing, his contact points out that points out that the man will kill his family. He doesn't care, and in fact answers, 'Good'.

There are two reasons to watch, and neither are because of the depravity, which is graphic but not stimulating. In fact at points it's downright repellent. One reason is because of the performance of the lead actor, Harvey Keitel. He's played some lowdown characters in his time but this one must take the biscuit and he is truly and unpredictably magnetic, even when doing things that we don't want to see. It may be easy to believe Keitel in a role like ths because we're almost conditioned into believing it through experiencing his other work but that denigrates his performance and it's fundamentally unfair. He is amazing here, pure and simple.

The other reason is also because of Keitel's performance but has to do with how it changes. This unnamed cop spiralling so far out of control manages to find a semblance of conscience investigating a case. Two young men rape a nun, in a church no less. They violate her with a crucifix and paint obscenities over the altar. This in itself doesn't cause any change in our Lieutenant, who is a Catholic who believes the church is a racket. Yet the nun knows who her attackers were and she forgives them and it's his complete and utter inability to comprehend this act that triggers a sort of hallucinatory readjustment.

There are a lot of ways to read this and there isn't a single answer. I think the meaning will have to resonate because this film is so much of a cinematic slap in the face that it induces shock.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

We're in the south, the deep south, so far south that there are confederate flags everywhere and there's even a banjo picker playing his way down Main Street firing out rebel yells and singing that the south will rise again. We're in Pleasant Valley, which is celebrating it's centennial: April 1865 - April 1965. To celebrate they identify northerners on the main highway from their license plates and detour six of them into Pleasant Valley as guests of honour. However the centennial isn't to commemorate a hundred years of the town's existence, it's to remember a hundred years since a renegade band of union soldiers massacred the entire place. Pleasant Valley is pledged to blood vengeance.

Writer and director Herschell Gordon Lewis invented the splatter movie in 1963 with Blood Feast which featured the same two leads as this followup: William Kerwin and Connie Mason, who met on the set and married early in 1964. This isn't a sequel, but it's the second part of a thematic trilogy known as the Blood trilogy, that concluded with 1965's Color Me Blood Red. Needless to say it has plenty of blood, though the effects would seem tame compared to films nowadays, but it's inventive and twisted and it's actually about five light years ahead of Blood Feast in terms of acting, writing and consistency.

Blood Feast is a legendary and massively influential film, but to be brutally honest it's terrible. It achieved what it did through being something completely new and shocking, but the acting was terrible, the camerawork was worse and the writing was nigh on nonexistent. There were so many plot inconsistencies that you could build a drinking game around them. This one is ridiculous too but given the limitations of the story, it's a stunningly consistent ride that builds wonderfully and has a decent ending to boot. The gore is dished out consistently and inventively with notable sadism. The barrel roll is great fun and the teetering rock is even better. Only Herschell Gordon Lewis would turn murder into a softball sideshow game.

The cast are half Lewis regulars and half actors who would never appear in anything ever again. William Kerwin, acting again as Thomas Wood, was Lewis's regular intro man. He didn't just appear in Blood Feast, he appeared in ten Lewis movies, from 1961's The Adventures of Lucky Pierre to 1968's Suburban Roulette. He even ended up on some as production manager, writer, you name it. Playboy Playmate Connie Mason mostly retired after this one, but found her way into bit parts in notable films like Diamonds are Forever and The Godfather: Part II. I'm just surprised that people like Gary Bakeman never came back for more.

There Was a Father (1942)

I've watched Japanese films for years, through the many different genres and eras that make up Japanese cinema: chambara, anime, kaiju, yakuza movies, J-horror, you name it. Yet I'm still missing a number of key names, and probably the most notable is Yasujiro Ozu. He is one of the most prominent Japanese directors in that country's long history of cinema, with many highly regarded films to his credit, including Tokyo Story, Floating Weeds and I Was Born, But... I've picked up the two Floating Weeds films on a Criterion DVD set but haven't had a chance to watch yet, so this TCM Import broadcast, titled Chichi ariki in Japanese, became my first Ozu.

It may not be the best place to start, given what I've read, but there are elements here that I was expecting from Ozu. It's a gentle film, as much as it can easily be construed as wartime propaganda, and Ozu made gentle films. It's also rooted firmly in very real everyday life, focusing on the relationship between a widower and his son. Beyond the natural lack of gimmicks and CGI to take the place of plot, there's not really any plot either, more of a theme: that of duty, something naturallly appropriate in a time of war.

The father is Shuhei Horikawa, a poor schoolteacher who resigns from his post after an accident on a class outing where one of his charges dies in a boating accident. He travels with his young son Ryohei to Ueda, where he was born, but once he gets Ryohei into boarding school, promptly moves back to Tokyo. The key thing to realise here is that he's not deserting his son in the slightest: everything he does is to further his son's education. They correspond all the time, they visit all the time and both hold those visits above everything else. They also continue into adult life, after Ryohei graduates from university and becomes a teacher himself at a technical school in Akita.

The point of the film is duty. This is Shuhei's duty to his son, to love him and care for him but to put his future above the convenience of living in the same home as him. Even when that potential opportunity arises, he fights it. At one point Ryohei wants to quit his job in Akita to live with his father in Tokyo, but Shuhei forbids him. Everybody's duty is to do what they do, and do it to the best of their abilities. Ryohei is a teacher in Akita and so needs to be the best teacher in Akita that he can be.

There are many forms of duty and this film works through many of them. Shuhei points out to his son that he's never taken a sick day in his life. Shuhei's own impact can be seen though a school reunion, to which his former students invite him. They all still respect everything he did for them: he did his duty to them. There's a wider duty too that can be seen at the same reunion. Even though this is less than ten years after these kids graduated, every one of them is married with at least one kid. So we have duty to family, duty to work, duty to elders, duty to country. The war itself is hardly mentioned but it does come up as young men including Ryohei pass their medicals and are approved for the draft.

I found much to enjoy here. The performance of Chishu Ryu as Shuhei Horikawa is superb, nuanced and touching and he ages very well indeed. I couldn't buy into that of Shuji Sano as his son Ryohei much though. While he had a few powerful moments, mostly on his own, to my eyes he mostly seemed static and amateurish when working with his on screen father. He often seems to be speaking through his teeth, as if he was wearing ill fitting dentures that hurt his mouth if he moved it.

The direction is excellent. Being my first Ozu I have no idea what comes off as something that stamps Ozu on the film, but there are a few things that would seem to fit with what tends to get called directorial trademarks. There's a lot of silence in the film and a lot of small sounds: a whirling abacus, ritual sounds at a temple, rhythmic working machinery. There are a lot of aesthetically framed shots that work as transitions between scenes. And there's a lot of dialogue that really defines a scene. As my first Ozu, this didn't stun me but it certainly left me wanting to see more.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Koma (2004)

A girl wakes up in a hotel bathtub full of ice with a note in front of her reading, 'Call the police or you'll die'. Sure enough, she's missing a kidney. She's apparently the fifth such case in the city, hardly surprising given that kidneys are going for $60,000 a pop on the black market. She's discovered by Ching, a young lady who was there for a wedding and so was naturally rather drunk at the time. Ching reports to the police a suspect who she'd seen wandering around at the wedding looking out of place, and that suspect turns out to be a medical student called Suen Ling.

Everything would seem to be falling nicely into place, but then this isn't that sort of movie. Ling is sleeping with Ching's boyfriend, a doctor called Wai, thus prompting a whole setup theory that the police aren't too unwilling to believe, especially given that Ching seems to have more than a few issues, from self loathing to kidney failure and now the confidence issues associated with a boyfriend who's cheating on her. Then again Ling seems to have a few issues herself and more than a few secrets.

She sets up a couple of truly twisted stalker situations that point to this being a horror suspense film, but then the pair begin to bond and become very close indeed. In many ways they're opposite sides of the same coin. Both are in love with Wai, but the one he loves can't have sex so he seeks that from the other instead, and while Wai is the key to everything that happens between the two of them, it's absolutely the two young ladies who rule this story.

It's a bizarre and fascinating film in which our expectations are constantly played with. One thing that I really admired is that there are quite a few routine shocks, nicely done but completely routine. However the moment we start expecting a routine film, writer Susan Chan throws something else at us entirely. The routine shocks are there to sucker us in. The film itself is far, far from routine. In its way it's a horror film, a psychological thriller, an exploration of urban legend and something that transcends all of these. it's dark and twisted and beautifully appropriate.

I know a few of the names in this Hong Kong film, but not enough. Angelica Lee is the Malaysian actress who suffered through the original version of The Eye, but this makes a pitiful two out of sixteen films I've seen her in. That's one more time than I've seen Kar Yan Lam aka Karena Lam out of seventeen films. Interestingly the lady I thought I recognised is neither of these. The actress who plays Ching's mother isn't credited at IMDb, but it's Lau Hung-Dau aka Liu Hong-Dou aka Redbean Lau, who seems to be split into two people at IMDb: Hong Dou Liu and Redbean Lau. I could swear blind that I've seen her as some sort mob boss but I can't find a credit that I've seen. Intriguingly, she's Angelica Lee's mother here but Karena Lam's mother in Inner Senses.

Inner Senses was the film Chi-Leung Law made before Koma and he co-wrote that one. Koma was the first film he directed that he didn't write, instead bringing in Susan Chan who did stunning work. She was the first name I looked up to see what else she's written, because the talent she displays here suggests a long and distinguished career as a thriller writer. I was more than a little surprised to see that I've seen her work before, in Jackie Chan's Who am I? and that her many film credits don't seem to suggest psychological thrillers: titles such as My Mother is a Belly Dancer, Rave Fever and Why Me, Sweetie?!; Nude Fear, Run Papa Run and Summer Holiday. Either that suggests that she got lucky here or that she has truly astounding versatility as a writer. Whichever it is, she got this one very right indeed and everyone else involved backed her up to the hilt.

Lorna Doone (1922)

Outside the White Horse Inn on the Devon coast, John Ridd, a farmer's son returning from boarding school, meets Lorna, daughter of the Countess of Lorne. They immediately hit it off but are quickly parted. There are highwaymen on the London road, it would seem, and Lorna's guardian has the false assumption that they don't attack women, so John gives Lorna a knife with his name on it to protect her from them. They are the Doones, a band of thieves and cutthroats led by an exiled nobleman, Sir Ensor Doone.

Needless to say, the Doones, as befitting any self respecting group of villains, don't have any compunction about attacking women. They force Lorna's coach into the sea, rob them, dump her guardian on the beach and steal Lorna away: after all she has spirit and so would make a good wife for a Doone someday. Years pass and Lorna blossoms into a beautiful young lady, favoured by Sir Ensor, who is a decent enough sort for someone who leads an outlaw band. He promises that while he lives she can marry whoever she chooses, thus keeping her safe from the likes of Carver Doone, the wildest of all the Doones.

Unfortunately as we meet the grown up Lorna, Sir Ensor doesn't have long to live. Fortunately, before he dies, John Ridd is swept downstream while lifting a treetrunk for the fun of it, and right into her presence. He lives only a mile away from the valley of the Doones and is now the strongest man in Devonshire, so she has a handy rescuer ready and available when Carver takes over everything in the Valley of the Doones, including her.

The cast is an interesting one, though because this is 1922, they exaggerate their movements in true silent movie style, posturing and swaggering and cowering with emphasis. The one notable exception is John Bowers, who plays John Ridd in a more naturalistic manner free from most such posturing. Bowers was apparently quite a star in the early twenties, but he was one of the actors who failed notably to transition into sound. In 1936 he rowed out into the Pacific and drowned himself, thus allegedly inspiring similar demise of the character Norman Maine in A Star is Born.

He's credited behind the real lead, Madge Bellamy, appearing two years before The Iron Horse\ and looking quite lovely. After that film her career gradually foundered, through impetuosity rather than any lack of talent, and she made more headlines as a private citizen than as an actress. By the time she starred opposite Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (probably her most frequently seen movie today) in 1932, she'd married and divorced a stockbroker in a period of only three days. Later in 1943 she shot her millionaire lover who had left her to marry another woman.

Uncredited as the Countess of Brandir, and so Lorna's guardian, is Gertrude Astor, no relation to Mary, who I've seen many many times without really noticing who she was. She had a long career, beginning in 1915 and running all the way through to 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. She was the first actress to sign with Universal, she played trombone on a Mississippi showboat and she and Lilyan Tashman were often referred to as the best dressed and most elegant woman in Hollywood. She made over 250 films.

The director is Maurice Tourneur, who was a major name in the silent era, with such films behind him as the 1920 versions of Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans. He was also the father of Jacques Tourneur, whose films I sought out for some time, being a fan of his work for Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and especially The Leopard Man) as well as the much later Night of the Demon and some intriguing films noir.