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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner September 19, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 5 comments

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So many times I’ll look forward to seeing a film only to lose patience when I’m actually watching it, disappointed that my expectations haven’t been met. Then something extraordinary happens: the ending. Great endings should enhance everything you’ve seen earlier in the film. More than making up for the viewer’s wandering attention span, truly exceptional endings make the viewer better understand the path the film has been on throughout its running time, while also providing a near-epiphany as to the film’s overall merits. It’s not that a strong ending negates all the flaws from earlier in the film, but I’ve found that it can often provide a method to the earlier madness. All of this applies to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay.

Since first viewing Billy Liar a couple of weeks ago, I’ve thought quite a bit about that film and the things it’s stirred around inside of me. I was very anxious to see Courtenay’s earlier performance and further explore British films of this time period. I like this angry young man thing. I’m an angry young(ish) man. I’m in color and without the accent, but it seemed promising all the same. Too often change seems hopeless, rebellion impossible. Let’s plan to revolutionize the world tonight, even if we don’t remember it in the morning. That sort of thing. Then I’m watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and it’s not there. Who’s this Colin Smith? What’s his problem? His father died, his mother is cold and uncaring, he stole money, he’s punished in a juvenile detention center, and he runs. Where’s Billy Fisher? I can’t relate to this guy. I miss Billy.

But then the ending revs up and suddenly I get it. If the two Courtenay characters are different sides of the same coin, Colin is the strong-willed mischief maker and Billy is the harmless dreamer. They converge at the refusal to conform to society’s ideals regardless of what’s in their best interest. Just because everyone else justifies playing the conformist game doesn’t mean individual rebellion is impossible. I’m reminded of Holden Caulfield, but his fate is even less comforting. As invigorating as Billy Liar and Loneliness can be, they’re ultimately somewhat defeatist. That is, if you adhere to the societal definition of success and defeat. Individually, Billy and Colin both win, very much in their own ways, but they’re also doomed to lives undoubtedly plagued by the creeping intervention of reality. Each character makes a life-altering decision and each film conveniently ends without forcing the bitter pill of the resulting consequences down the audience’s throat.

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But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Richardson’s film, adapted by Saturday Night and Sunday Morning writer Alan Sillitoe from his own short story, seems less dazzling than the near-manic Billy Liar, but it plays heavier, more dangerous. Colin Smith’s present at the borstal institution is woven with his past at home. He faces troubles in both places - among his fellow delinquents and at the hands of his emotionless mother following the death of his father. The flashbacks (though they don’t really feel like flashbacks) frequently occur when Colin is running. He seems to derive little enjoyment from running, but he does it just the same. He runs during the opening titles and just before the film’s end.

It’s this running of long distances that puts him in good favor with the borstal governor (played by Michael Redgrave), who hopes that Colin can defeat a local public school rival. Through the governor’s endorsement, Colin is able to climb the ranks of the borstal social system, at the expense of the former top runner who becomes so distraught that he tries to escape and ends up in solitary confinement. Colin tries to mitigate the damages, but he’s instead awarded unsupervised practice time to run the grounds. The governor lets it be known that a win against the school competition would bode well for Colin’s future freedom. Does he care though? Is that what’s really important, returning to his mother, younger siblings, and whatever man is currently sleeping in his father’s bed?

After he robs the bakery, but prior to getting arrested by the “coppers,” Colin discusses the idea of work and, essentially, capitalism with his girlfriend. “It’s not that I don’t like work. It’s just that I don’t like the idea of slaving me guts out so the bosses can get all the profits. Seems all wrong to me,” he says. Seems all wrong indeed. So that’s what he has to look forward to when Colin regains his life on the outside of the detention center? Admittedly, this speaks to me and my ideals and my sense of justice. Refusing to accept one’s place in the cogs of society strikes a chord. Even now, this film seems severely foreign to my American indoctrination. The land of the free, as long as certain segments are just a bit more free than others.

Obviously, though, the idea of freedom is subjective. By denying the cheering onlookers the satisfaction of a win that means nothing to him, Colin lacerates their expectations and demonstrates a self-reliant independence all too rare in film and life. How dare someone have different ideas of what constitutes success and accomplishment. There are strict rules of normalcy we’re constantly told to abide by. Otherwise, we might seem different or unique, heaven forbid. Sputtering to a stop, Colin half-grins his way to a defiant personal victory. It’s one of the most satisfying displays of rebellion I’ve ever seen on film.

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Courtenay plays it with absolute brilliance, as he does throughout the picture. He has such a unique face, his eyes sunken in over a hovering brow that make him seem much older. That works to his advantage here, giving Colin an automatic weariness beyond his years. Both this film and Billy Liar seem nearly unimaginable without the actor. Hard to believe that he’d be doing Leonard Part 6 twenty-five years later. I’m sure there’s some quality films of his that I haven’t seen, but I’m not sure there’s anything else quite of this caliber from the decade. I know he intentionally avoided Hollywood roles and such, but he’s so impressive in these two films that there seem like a few missed opportunities inevitably passed him by. He does appear to have an upcoming film lined up for Peter Yates, with whom he made The Dresser, so hopefully that works out. (And who am I to question his level of success anyway - didn’t this film teach me anything? My concerns are admittedly selfish.)

As with Billy Liar, I rented The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and now they’re both on my (imaginary) to-buy list. I do wish there were some extra features on the R1 Warner Bros. disc. The image quality might be a bit worse than what Criterion did with Billy Liar and it’s presented 1.78:1 aspect ratio instead of its original 1.66:1, but it still looks very good. The BFI R2 went out of print last year and had a commentary I’d like to hear, but no subtitles. Thankfully, the R1 does have subtitles since I kept them on most of the film due to some of the accents being a tad thick for my ears. With the R2 discontinued, perhaps rights have changed hands and an even better release might pop up. I sometimes wonder why major studios and specialty labels can’t get together across regions and share supplements, as the BFI commentary would have been ideal for the R1. But then, I’m an idealist at heart.

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The Collector September 12, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 1 comment so far

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The Collector is a terrifying film, much more so than the dozens of progeny it’s spawned, either directly or not, in the forty-plus years since the film was released. The story of a man so obsessed with “collecting” that he catches another human being for the purpose of making her fall in love with him is disturbing for all the reasons the modern serial killer films are not. Everything we see in The Collector feels like it could happen and it’s told to the audience almost entirely the way any other movie would be. No jump-cuts, no shaky camera, no throbbing death metal. Nothing to distinguish it stylistically from a typical Maurice Jarre-scored love story. In fact, the same year The Collector was released, 1965, Jarre actually did score David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, which was chosen by the AFI as the number 7 love story in the history of American movies.

I’m not crazy about Jarre’s work on The Collector, but I do think it adds an eerie quality indicative of the wolf in sheep’s clothing aspect found in Terence Stamp’s Freddie Clegg. A former bank employee who hit some sort of monetary windfall, Clegg buys a large piece of isolated property in the English countryside. He dresses very normal and clean-cut, speaks with emotionless calm, and is a psychopath. His target is Miranda Grey, an art student he’s observed for years without gaining the courage to talk to. Freddie’s solution to this bit of shyness is to kidnap Miranda and throw her in what is essentially a well-stocked dungeon. He thinks she’ll eventually fall in love with him once she gets to know the type of person he truly is. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work out quite like Freddie had hoped. Women, he finds out, are less submissive than the butterflies he captures in jars. If left in captivity long enough, the same result does occur, but only one of the two species can be pinned and framed.

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The film was based on a popular novel by John Fowles published in 1963, two years before the big screen version. The structure of the book was apparently altered for the movie, with Freddie’s bank life reduced to a quick black and white flashback. Instead, we’re introduced to the collector in the film’s opening titles, hunting butterflies before finding a secluded house in Kent. The idea that this man views his hobby as an “entomologist,” as he later describes himself, much the same way he treats the pursuit and capture of his victim is obvious and intentional. Is there a larger point to be made though? Could such “collecting” be metaphorical for the vast need of man to essentially devour as much as he possibly can, be it material objects, sexual conquests, or anything else in his path? Humans are certainly a possessive lot, concerned less with need than want it seems, so such an analogy might fit. Like most of the questions I pose to myself when thinking about particular movies (in a non-pretentious way, of course), I really don’t know the answer, but it’s still fun to consider.

Something else I found interesting in The Collector was how director William Wyler and his screenwriters positioned the film as a demented love story. Stamp and Samantha Eggar as Miranda are the only two actors in the vast majority of the picture, feeding off each other’s conflicting styles. Both are absolutely superb. Eggar was nominated for an Academy Award and truly builds a dynamic performance out of her role, evolving Miranda from a somewhat spoiled, naive girl when she’s captured to a wiser, fully empowered woman by the end. Stamp (who couldn’t manage to surmount a stellar quintet of actors receiving Oscar nods that year - Olivier, Steiger, Werner, Burton and ultimate winner Lee Marvin) is so good the audience can never tell just how demented his character will be. I was even struck by a slight sympathy for Freddie at times. The closest cinematic relative I can think of from roughly this same time period would be Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, made five years earlier, and Stamp makes Carl Boehm’s performance in that film look almost embarrassingly shallow.

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The strength of the two central performances in The Collector allows the film to function, like the poster tagline, as “almost a love story.” Freddie and Miranda have the perverse equivalent of a courtship and, then, a domestic life. Miranda’s shocking inability to secure her freedom near the end, when she chooses instead to save Freddie from further injury and potential death, seems to indicate that she has developed some attachment to him (or that she’s unable to kill, depending on individual interpretation I guess, though the two aren’t mutually exclusive). While there’s no love or potential for future friendship, a bond was nevertheless formed between these two. What Freddie’s unable to understand is that even after Miranda gets to know him, she’s never going to feel love for a man who’s trapped her for weeks against her will.

In the realm of films where a psychotic shares a non-romantic bond with a young woman, there’s only one other halfway accomplished denizen that I can think of. That would be The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally’s take on the novel by Thomas Harris. Though there are many, many differences between the two book-to-film translations, it seems a little obvious that Harris was familiar with The Collector, either in its book or film incarnation. Buffalo Bill in the latter film is also collecting women (Freddie Clegg’s victims seem destined to multiply) in dungeon-type rooms, though for a far more sinister reason. The relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling is at least reminiscent of some of what we see in The Collector between Freddie and Miranda. Also, coincidence or not, The Silence of the Lambs book cover and film poster both prominently feature a moth, which is quite similar to a butterfly. And I’d wager it’s definitely not a coincidence that Sony slapped a huge butterfly picture on their R1 DVD cover for The Collector instead of using something more restrained like the original poster art.

Thankfully, it’s restraint in Wyler’s film that makes it seem so iconoclastic today. I can’t think of other prominent films of this time that dared go to the places The Collector takes us. Calling it ahead of its time almost seems like a disrespectful understatement. If you removed Jarre’s score, the film could be made today exactly the same and still feel fresh and different. Having said that, I’m pleasantly surprised no one’s remade it yet. If that ever happens, I can only imagine it would be a disaster on all accounts. The reason The Collector works so well is because no one was making these types of movies in the classic Hollywood mold at the time. What may seem tame today for lacking excessive blood and violence plays as a more organically creepy look at the mind of obsession. It’s not nostalgia that makes the film so engrossing when watching it now, it’s the shocking and unexpected removal of the Hollywood safety net for two hours.

(The Sony R1 DVD is overpriced with a mostly sharp, but inconsistent image and disappointingly free of extra features. Contextual material, not necessarily along these lines, but maybe discussion of Fowles and interviews with Stamp and Eggar, doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.)

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Attack of the B’s - Billy Liar, the British New Wave and Films Beginning with the Letter ‘B’ September 5, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 1 comment so far

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Through a happy coincidence, the letter ‘B’ plays a vital role in this entry. For some unknown reason, I find myself drawn to films beginning with that letter, both in watching and in writing. I’ve written about this sort of ‘B’ film more than any other letter, as evidenced by my index. It’s not the number one letter among my DVD collection, but it’s one of the most popular nonetheless. I really have no idea why this is, but I do know it’s actually caused me to purposefully avoid writing about films beginning with the letter ‘B’ until things are more evened out. Equal opportunity and so forth.

I don’t know what my favorite ‘B’ film would be or why I’d really think about such a question, but when I went to check some of my favorite directors’ filmographies I noticed that Billy Wilder (whose given first name was actually Samuel and, thus, became a ‘B’ by choice) only made one film starting with ‘B’ - Buddy, Buddy, his last and most maligned. Nicholas Ray had two excellent ones, Bigger Than Life and Bitter Victory, and another that’s significantly less accomplished, Born to Be Bad. Fritz Lang also had good luck with the letter ‘B’ - directing The Blue Gardenia, The Big Heat, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, all excellent films. Enough of that, though.

The real reason for this latest ‘B’ odyssey was a recent viewing of John Schlesinger’s film Billy Liar. I’d put off watching it for a few years after reading some less than favorable reviews from persons I no longer remember and from whom I now would never trust. I don’t know a great deal about the film’s star Tom Courtenay or its director, aside from the fact that Schlesinger made Midnight Cowboy, a great film that scarred me enough when I saw it initially that I’m not really anxious to see it again. I don’t like reading very much about movies I haven’t seen prior to watching them so I knew only the barest of details. Superficially, I liked the Criterion cover (original poster art, something the folks across the river should do more often), but had avoided buying it because of the scant extra features. The film is just over an hour and a half and has only a commentary and brief excerpt from a BBC program as supplements.

So I rented it and now I’m unhappy. I wish I had just bought the thing. The transfer was nothing extraordinary but more than acceptable and I didn’t have time to listen to the commentary, but I really enjoyed the film. I also realized that I have to get over my slight bias against British films. I’m afraid that most Americans fall into one of two camps regarding (non-comedic) British films. There are the small contingent of Anglophiles who love everything. I’ve not encountered these persons myself, but I know they’re out there. Then there’s the majority of Americans who have a preconception that British drama is somewhat stuffy, overly serious or with slight humor that doesn’t make sense to those who get their laughs from hearty doses of knee to the groin slapstick. I’m really not in either category, but I do admit to having a significant gap in my cinematic knowledge where it concerns British film.

Right now, I’m working my way through the 1960s in anticipation of the next entry in the Lists Project I’ve posted about previously. That means the so-called British New Wave has to be accounted for in my viewing. Thus, I finally threw Billy Liar to the top of my rental queue. I don’t have a lot of experience with this particular movement, and it doesn’t look like very many titles are currently available in R1 DVD. I did recently watch Lindsay Anderson’s If…., which I enjoyed but it didn’t give me the same emotional tug as Billy Liar. That film left me fascinated with Tom Courtenay and his film career, which is surprisingly meager and undistinguished. His performance in Billy Liar is an epic achievement and possibly my favorite from a British actor whose last name isn’t O’Toole (technically born in Ireland, but usually regarded as English). I can’t wait to dive headfirst into The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner now.

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There’s so much to empathize with in Courtenay’s Billy Fisher. Apparently Courtenay understudied for Albert Finney in the stage version, but stepped in to the film when Finney was unavailable. Again, having a limited knowledge of these actors’ performances, but I think Courtenay really nailed the vulnerability of Billy much more than Finney would have. The character is portrayed as very easy to like (at least for me) and one whom the audience can immediately relate to (again, at least I could). Courtenay was the same age I am today when the film was released, despite Billy’s age supposedly being 19, I think. This just adds to the power of the film though. If Billy really was a tad older, like Courtenay, like myself, then perhaps he would have matured a bit, but his problems would seem even more difficult and affecting.

There’s a comparison that I made, after seeing the film, of Billy to Elwood P. Dowd, as played by Jimmy Stewart in Harvey. One of my favorite lines in movie history is Dowd’s “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” This, to me, is exactly what Billy is doing and what he decides at the end of the film when he heartbreakingly chooses to let Julie Christie take the train to London without him. There’s an air of giving in to the fantasy version of life and letting it rule over you while every last catastrophe goes unnoticed. An approach that’s somewhat tempting, if you ask me. Ultimately, it’s unrealistic, of course, but it seems so much simpler in theory. Instead of dealing with the world’s travesties, you’re gunning down the people who cause you grief.

It’s part of the life as futile objective approach, and sometimes I find it a little too persuasive. Still, the fantasy elements of Billy Liar are only part of what makes the film such a beautifully idealistic look at the possibilities of young dreamers. Even though the ending feels like a devastating blow to the nonconformist ideal (I was literally fighting back tears), I think Billy Liar remains a positive statement that the Billy Fishers of the world can conquer this empty abyss of humanity. Billy’s youth ultimately seems as persuasive an argument that he might one day escape the suburban jungle as the deflating feeling the audience gets from his reluctance to take that fateful train in the film. Regardless, Billy’s choice doesn’t have to be the viewer’s. I know I’d like to picture myself as across from Julie Christie rather than battling Billy’s parents each morning.

Even if Billy isn’t all of us, he’s at least a part of many of us. When I look at my own experience, I see someone who went from a rural Southern town with a population of 1,900 to living fifteen miles away from the largest city in the nation. There’s work still left to be done, sure, but it’s a start. For me, Billy is an inspiration as much as a lesson in never losing sight of the magic of individualism. Schlesinger’s film breezes by and, when it ends, you really wish it’d go on a bit longer. I’ve read that there’s a television show somewhere about Billy, and, of course, the original novel from which the play and film were adapted. I’m not sure I really want to know any more though. I’m quite happy with the version I’ve seen and can’t imagine anyone else bringing more to the character than what Courtenay did.

Pitfall July 28, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 1 comment so far

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Pitfall was the debut feature from Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara, newly celebrated by the Criterion Collection in a superb four-disc box set. It’s what one might describe as an art film, less concerned with narrative and tying up loose ends than creating disturbing images that become etched into the viewer’s mind. But what images. Surreal ants carefully picked away from stale sweets by a female candy clerk. The skin of a frog gradually peeled off its body. A man’s spirit rising up from his body after he’s been brutally stabbed. Another man, one who shares a face with the deceased, collapsing out of the water and into a mud-soaked death as a butterfly flitters around him. Throughout, a young boy stands silently watching, captured in one memorable scene staring through a small opening in the wall as he peers at a police officer sexually attacking the candy shop woman, reproduced for the covers of both the Criterion release and an earlier edition put out by the Masters of Cinema series in the UK.

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What Teshigahara and his collaborators, notably novelist and screenwriter Kobo Abe, composer Toru Takemitsu, and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa, give the audience is an unparalleled combination of the political, procedural, supernatural and existential. Unsolved mysteries, enigmatic characters, bitter ghosts, and the problems of postwar Japan add up to a mesmerizing and hypnotic film, even if it may take multiple viewings to wrap your head around. I’ve seen it twice now and feel like there’s half a dozen viewings left before I’ll really grasp everything Teshigahara and co. were striving for. The first time I wasn’t prepared for the meandering plot and its misleading importance. By this I mean that the physical resemblance of the miner and the pit chief initially seemed like a notable development, but further viewing reveals it more as the equivalent of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.

As I see it, the most important idea coming from the two men’s resemblance rises out of Teshigahara’s interest in identity, a theme later explored in his third feature with Abe, The Face of Another, and highlighted by Criterion’s choice of an embossed fingerprint for their box set cover. From this perspective, it’s mildly fascinating, if under-explored. The main character in Pitfall has his life ended solely because he’s mistaken for someone else, a man of importance in a petty dispute between mining organizations. At least that’s the impression the audience gets from the film. There’s no confirmation and the mysterious assassin, clad completely in white, remains a mythic question mark. Without any inclination of motive or speck of rationale, the audience is left assuming that the murderous man in white was employed to kill his initial victim’s lookalike. The only concrete evidence we have to verify this is an inconclusive piece of paper the killer removes from his victim’s body.

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Pitfall is a film that largely requires the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. We’re never left with any doubt as to Teshigahara’s political leanings (established almost immediately in the opening titles by the shot of a malnourished child’s swollen stomach), but most everything that happens in the film is either unresolved or explained with the vaguest of answers. The wordless child of the stabbed miner initially seems like an innocent, a victim of circumstance. As the film progresses, though, our sympathy wanes and his existence becomes mysterious. His ghost of a father never once laments the now-orphaned boy and we repeatedly see him as a silent observer of crimes. Why does he take the piece of candy from his dead father? Why does the only tear we see him shed come as a result of the death of the man who looks like his father, and not when he watches the ill-fated miner try to retreat from the violent stabbings of the assassin?

The film’s strange ending, showing the child running away from the village where he’s seen four people killed, provides more questions than answers. The young boy survives, along with the immaculately-attired killer, but we’ve seen nothing to make us think this is in any way a hopeful resolution. The assassin, exuding a strange charisma associated with well-dressed men, is undeniably a bad man. Had he killed only the miner, we might reluctantly sympathize with his professionalism, but the unnecessary murder of the candy woman tips the scales in favor of a more sinister characterization. By the end, the only living person who’s seen him and lived to tell was the miner’s young son. As James Quandt intuitively points out on the Criterion disc’s excellent video essay, this doesn’t bode well for the child’s future endeavors. His “escape” can be viewed with the devastating counterpoint that he really has nowhere to retreat and his life, assuming he survives, could just as easily follow the path of the assassin as the miner existence of his father.

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Like the boy’s fate, much of the film is open-ended. As I mentioned earlier, we know little about the scooter-riding assassin or his motives, but the entire procedural aspect is mostly left unresolved as well. We see police inspectors in white coats and newspaper reporters investigating the initial murder, but both of these aspects are abandoned, shown little importance in relation to the deaths and ghostly incarnations. The audience knows the culprit of each murder, of course, but we see little resembling an investigation. Perhaps this is another political statement from Teshigahara, that of bureaucratic inefficiency, and it certainly adds to the film’s messy qualities of unresolved plot lines and ambiguous conclusions. Without any sort of closure, spiritual or otherwise, the audience is left just as frustrated as the characters in the film.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t achieve greatness. It does, in spite of its flaws. Teshigahara’s debut succeeds as a haunting entry into a world completely foreign to the great majority of 21st century DVD consumers. Though he directed very few fictional features in his career, the filmmaker made an undeniable impact in world cinema and became the first Japanese director nominated as Best Director at the Academy Awards for Woman in the Dunes, his follow-up to Pitfall. Personally, I find the work of Teshigahara and Shohei Imamura, both disciples of the so-called Japanese New Wave, far more interesting than more popular directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Each liked to repeatedly return to the same themes, but I find more appealing and exhilarating ideas in the former two’s films.

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Criterion’s DVD for Pitfall has an impressively rendered picture (though windowboxed), and noticeably superior even to the MoC release. The image is strikingly clear, with intermittent specks of dirt seemingly on the lens that do nothing to inhibit the image quality. If anything, they make the film feel more real and alive in its lifelike reproduction of the grimy world faced by postwar Japanese miners struggling with conflicts both physical and political. I can’t say I like the overlaps between the two DVD outfits, but I’m glad that one is at least improving on the other. It should be pointed out, as well, that the informative Tony Rayns provides a commentary exclusive to the MoC edition, while the Criterion release, only available in the Teshigahara set, boasts the Quandt video essay. Both include a worthwhile original trailer for the film, creepy and accomplished in and of itself. Because I’m a sucker, I treasure both the MoC and the Criterion, but, if forced to choose, I’d probably pick the latter for its startling improvement in image quality. Teshigahara and Abe’s fourth and final collaboration The Man Without a Map (aka The Ruined Map) remains conspicuously absent on English-language DVD, and would have been a nice addition to the Criterion set

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Hell in the Pacific May 23, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 2 comments

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Marvin.  Lee Marvin. 

An odd thought, but can you imagine Lee Marvin as James Bond?  Ignoring the accent, he would have been incredible, bringing the sadistic and amoral side to Bond that Daniel Craig has adopted in Casino Royale.  Marvin is one of those actors that make me question the auteur theory.  I normally write about films in the context of the director and/or the screenwriter as most responsible for what’s on screen, but there are a few actors who’ve been able to bring something special to almost every role they’ve played.  Marvin’s steely coolness dominates the films he appeared in, making mediocre movies worthwhile and good movies even better.  He worked with fine directors, such as Aldrich, Ritchie, Boorman and Siegel among others, but Lee Marvin is the real reason to see Emperor of the North Pole, Prime Cut, Point Blank and The Killers.  Even his supporting turns in films like Attack, Ship of Fools and Seven Men from Now are completely memorable and make the viewer anxious for the next time Marvin appears on screen. 

The Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York has devoted over two weeks worth of films to Marvin, including those mentioned above, with his widow Pamela Marvin and director John Boorman participating.  It’s been a great chance to become reacquainted with one of the most unique and accomplished film presences in movie history.  To encourage people to attend instead of popping in their DVDs, the FSLC offered a special series pass for $40 that enabled patrons to see up to 8 films, a significant savings from the regular $11 ticket price.  I took advantage of the offer, seeing some things for the first time while revisiting others that I’d seen before on a much smaller screen.  Two of my favorites are the two films directed by Boorman, the anamorphic classics Point Blank and Hell in the Pacific, both begging to be seen in a theaterFilm Comment, the bimonthly magazine published by the FSLC, also celebrated the retrospective (appropriately titled Lee Marvin: The Coolest Lethal Weapon) with a lengthy article on Marvin, available in its entirety online.  (Attached below are my ticket stubs, the program guide, etc.  Click to enlarge.)

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In Marvin’s second collaboration with Boorman, Hell in the Pacific, the two men once again used the actor’s rugged toughness to good use.  Portraying a nameless American soldier washed up on a Pacific island, Marvin has the task of carrying the film for Western audiences, as the only character speaking English.  He’s marooned on the island with a Japanese soldier, played by Toshiro Mifune, who’s immediately distrustful of him.  Mifune speaks only in Japanese and most viewers, just like Marvin’s character, will have a tough time deciphering his unsubtitled speech.  Neither character says much of anything though, instead allowing natural sounds like a pounding rainstorm and Lalo Schifrin’s atmospheric score to meld together.  In showing the military opponents’ confrontations and compromises, Hell in the Pacific exhibits the struggle these two characters must face to survive the conditions and each other.  

The film begins with Mifune already on the island, in full beard.  He’s adapted to the stranded existence by setting traps for fish and preserving rainwater.  Mifune and the audience see Marvin for the first time together, a thirsty, stubbled face soldier whose life raft has wandered ashore leaving the American in the brush of the jungle.  As the film progresses, each character gains the upper hand on the other, but only before losing again.  Marvin teases and enrages Mifune, but is then captured and shackled by vine.  Upon escape, Marvin gives Mifune the same punishment before realizing that the two men really have no issue with one another.  When Marvin reads a military manual instructing soldiers to kill enemies when captured on an island, he’s instead prompted to cut Mifune free.  With Marvin’s gesture in defying expectations of war, after Mifune could have previously killed him also, the film quietly reminds us of the human cost of battle.  Enemies are more than faceless killing machines, regardless of the language they speak or country they were raised.  Sometimes it takes a vacuum, such as the deserted island in Hell in the Pacific, to realize it. 

Boorman’s film is an oddity, especially considering its 1968 release.  Set during World War II, but like many other military pictures of the time, it’s obviously intended to provoke thoughts of the Vietnam conflict, opposed by both director and actor.  The postcard cinematography by the brilliant Conrad Hall makes sure to give the audience a look at the spectacular beauty offered by the Pacific Ocean locale.  When the men successfully build a raft and make their way to another piece of land, we see remnants of more tropical paradise, only now bombed out and destroyed by war.  It’s certainly not unthinkable to wonder if Boorman intended Western audiences to pause and ask what’s the point of it all.  Together Marvin and Mifune set aside their differences and left the island, but when the outside world once again interfered the two men resumed their unintelligible bickering.

Though I think Hell in the Pacific has aged quite well, especially in these days of Cast Away, Survivor, and Lost, the ending found on the DVD release and the theatrical print I saw has not and now seems too sudden, almost comically so.  I’m referring to the abrupt explosion that concludes the film, which probably never played very popularly with the audience, but now comes across as ridiculous to boot.  Why exactly would a bomb drop on the already obliterated area where Marvin and Mifune are drunkenly quarreling?  The only halfway sensible explanation I’ve read was that perhaps their fire had been spotted, but even this seems to suspend reality a little too much for my liking.  In fact, John Boorman never approved this ending and it was imposed by the producer after the director had finished the film.  The final scene as shot, shown as an alternate ending on the DVD, had been thought up by Marvin and consisted of the two men simply parting ways in anger.  Still abrupt but much more appropriate and consistent.

I recently had the chance to ask John Boorman, a very nice man possessing the brio to wear red pants with a green shirt in May, about Hell in the Pacific and what it must have been like to juggle Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in the Palau Islands.  Even now, roughly forty years after the fact, it was obvious that Boorman was still frustrated over shooting the film.  (So much so I wish I hadn’t asked actually.) With the idea of maintaining a high degree of authenticity, Boorman had two writers working on the script, an American for Marvin’s character and Rashomon scribe Shinobu Hashimoto on the Mifune part.  Hashimoto went off and returned a couple of weeks later with his reworking, wherein Mifune’s character was comedically drawn as a buffoon. 

When production began, the actor had erroneously been told this update would be the shooting version and proceeded with his performance in this manner.  Even though Boorman never intended to use these alterations, Mifune had been given Hashimoto’s rewrites and was embarassed when the director tried to correct him during filming.  The preeminent Japanese actor felt disrespected and publicly humiliated.  Relations were never completely mended on the set, though Mifune still kept Boorman from being fired by the studio, and the mostly Japanese crew probably heightened the tension.  Even reading Boorman’s words about the ordeal, from a transcript of a conversation between John Hurt and the director (here), one can intuit the lasting hurt he still harbors.

Regardless of the filming process, the final product remains a daringly captivating experience.  Marvin, at his leading man peak, once again proved to be an enthralling actor and there’s thankfully little evidence of Hashimoto’s characterization in Mifune’s performance.  Viewers familiar with both actors are probably more likely to appreciate and enjoy the film, but it still works far better than conventional wisdom would have you believe.  Mostly wordless throughout, Hell in the Pacific instead relies on a compelling story and two extremely charismatic actors giving superb performances.  Aside from the ending, this is just about as good a film imaginable about the realistic problems faced by two men who do not share a common language, yet are stuck together alone on an island.  Granted that’s a miniscule subgenre, but many of the themes explored here are universally situated in all our lives.   

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Point Blank May 18, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , add a comment

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Click, clack.  Click, clack.  Click, clack. 

Clad in a sharp grey suit, Walker pounds his way down a fluorescent-lit airport hallway.  For the entirety of Point Blank, Walker is the proverbial man on a mission.  All he wants is his money (or so he says), and he’s ready to take it by any means necessary.  Lee Marvin portrays Walker as a heartless and violent character whose emotional range appears nonexistent, showing neither anger nor compassion.  It’s Marvin’s greatest role, one he helped mold with director John Boorman after the two men decided they liked the character much more than the existing script.   The lackluster Mel Gibson film Payback, also based on the book The Hunter by Donald Westlake, writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark, perfectly illustrates how effective the tinkering was by Boorman and Marvin on Point Blank.  In their version, Walker is the Terminator or Robocop, twenty years earlier and without science fiction overtones.       

Briefly, the plot involves Walker’s determined pursuit of the $93,000 that was his share in a robbery committed with his wife and his old Navy buddy, Reese.  All three went to prison at Alcatraz, but Reese and Walker’s wife escaped, shooting Walker repeatedly and leaving him for dead in his cell.  In the beginning of the film, we see Walker swim off the island where Alcatraz is located and, through innovatively fragmented editing, return on a boat tour where he meets a mysterious man (Keenan Wynn) looking to bring down the Organization, a faceless entity of crime where Reese now works.  The man gives Walker his wife’s current address, says Reese lives there too, and more dynamic editing takes us to her via the Los Angeles airport.  The wife answers questions no one asks and a stoic Walker sets his plan to retrieve his cut of the money in motion.

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Though you’ll often hear Point Blank categorized as a noir or a neo-noir, those terms really don’t interest me here.  Walker is so far removed from classic noir heroes that I can’t make that connection.  Lee Marvin plays him literally like an automaton seemingly without humanlike qualities.  On the surface, the film plays out like a noir plot, but it never emits that feeling of doom, dread and the wrong side of fate that exemplifies those kind of films.  Instead, Point Blank seems like a dreamy psychedelic peak through the looking glass.  The entire film situates itself on the brink of reality, teetering precisely between what may be real and what could be imagined.  It does a remarkable job of toeing this line and resists any concrete determinations of whether Walker is dead or alive, lucid or dreaming.  

As a result, I (and many, many others) can’t help but wondering if everything we see Walker do after he’s shot by Reese in Alcatraz is actually occurring or if it’s in his mind somehow.  I like that Boorman never gives any reason to think Walker isn’t either in some alternate existence or that he really is dreaming it all.  Prior to being shot, Walker seems very timid in the flashbacks involving his wife and Reese, much different than the animalistic near-psychotic we see throughout the picture.  Towards the end of the film, when Carroll O’Connor is talking to Walker, he appears to again become the unsure, more deliberate person we see in the flashbacks.  Yet, there’s never any way for the viewer to definitively know if we’re seeing movie reality or the delirious dreams of a man shot by his co-conspirator.  No matter how many times you watch the film, it’s impossible to figure out whether Walker is really taking down the Organization or if it’s an elaborate fantasy. 

Furthermore, dreaming or not, is Walker even really still alive?  More than one person in the film remarks that they thought he was dead and it’s entirely conceivable to think a man shot and left for dead would struggle to exit Alcatraz, much less swim across the ocean to San Francisco.  Then there’s the passing of time between Walker’s escape and our first real-time meeting when he’s on the tourist boat.  His hair seems greyer, his personality has calcified, and we’re never told why he’d be taking this boat tour in the first place.  If he’s so interested in the money owed him (which is a question in its own right, considering the ending), what’s he been doing since his escape?  We’re never told and the mystery of Walker is completely shrouded in uncertainty and question upon question.  Trying to determine Walker’s existence can be a maddening exercise in futility, with no right or wrong answer.

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Other characters in the film seem to either help Walker for unknown reasons or fear him.  Keenan Wynn emerges from the shadows repeatedly, popping up at just the right moment to provide pieces of information and encouragement.  Again, though, is this character real or part of Walker’s imagined revenge fantasy?  The ending suggests he plays an integral part in the plot, but that’s assuming we’re dealing with reality when we may not be.  Angie Dickinson, playing Walker’s ex-sister-in-law, goes to great lengths to provide help, later on attacks him violently, and ultimately is still unable to resist him.  If Walker was dreaming the story as a fantasy, every piece fits exactly in place.  In Point Blank, it’s possible to question everything from multiple angles and the only answers you’ll find will be rooted somewhere inside your own subjective head.  I don’t know if I can recall another film so ambiguous without going over the deep end of belief.

Then again, that’s part of the charm in Point Blank.  While it has a straightforward plot that’s fairly easy to follow, involving Walker’s efforts to disrupt the Organization and receive his $93,000, the film also has enough weird, open to interpretation moments to tide over the arthouse crowd.  Boorman’s splendid direction, made even more remarkable considering his only previous feature starred the Dave Clark Five, adds layers of headscratching wonders mixed with stand-out colors marked by a palette that changes tones with Marvin’s suits.  The DVD commentary, a conversation between Boorman and Steven Soderbergh, particularly made me appreciate the change in color and monochromatic detail prevalent in scenes such as Walker’s visit to his wife when, still wearing the grey suit, he sits on a grey couch with grey pillows in front of a backdrop of grey curtains and walls. 

Instead of giving us a typical crime drama revenge story, Boorman turned Point Blank into an existential action film littered with ellipses.  Whereas some directors, namely David Lynch, revel in fractured narratives challenging the viewer to put the pieces together, confidently telling the audience that there is an answer and “everything makes perfect sense,” Boorman’s film goes the opposite route.  Instead of making sense only after repeatedly watching and deciphering, Point Blank superficially makes sense with little reflection.  It’s only after closely examining the editing and, especially, the recurring flashbacks that we’re left in a daze of confusion.  Thrillingly, the audience never gets its answer to many of the questions about Walker, as he almost dematerializes in the end.  Somehow the film is both open-ended and straightforward, a major accomplishment in simmering late 1960s Hollywood.

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A Man Vanishes March 16, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s, Shohei Imamura , 1 comment so far

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The fallacy of truth in cinema is as much the main subject of Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes as the investigation into the disappearance of a Japanese businessman that initially appears to be the focal point of the 1967 film.  The director, whose films have been the subject of a Brooklyn retrospective the past two weeks, made his initial stab at nonfiction filmmaking with this rarely seen examination of a missing plastics salesman, Tadashi Oshima, who unexpectedly vanished in April 1965 while on a business trip.  Oshima left behind a fiancee, Yoshie, and joined the hundreds of Japanese businessmen who dropped out of sight without any obvious motive or warning.  Imamura was intrigued by this growing phenomenon, called “Johatsu,” and randomly selected the police file of Oshima as the subject of his filmed case study.

The first three-quarters or so act as a typical, straightforward exploration into why Oshima may have disappeared.  We’re introduced to the woman Oshima was to marry, Yoshie Hayakawa, and her sister Sayo, who both play large roles throughout the film.  Imamura employs an interviewer (professional actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) who travels with the camera crew to speak with friends and family of the missing man, as well as police detectives and Oshima’s boss.  We learn that he had been caught embezzling from the company and this is discussed as a potential reason for the disappearance.  A past romance and the idea that he may have been unsure about marrying Yoshie are also considered as possibilities.  A female shaman (who provides some strikingly eerie moments throughout the film) is consulted in an effort to summon Oshima or otherwise provide some answers to the many questions swirling around the vanished man.

It’s all shown in a very matter-of-fact, documentary style, as though the filmmakers are attempting to get to the bottom of the situation while gathering information that might help them in their pursuit.  At first, the camera is almost an afterthought, a necessary evil to drum up interest in Oshima more than a probing, opportunistic distraction.  Then we see a group of men in a small room, apparently the filmmakers, discussing the project and the film, not the disappearance or search for Oshima.  Their disdain for Yoshie, whom they call “The Rat,” becomes obvious and you can see the slight shift from a film about Oshima and the phenomenon of Japanese men who suddenly disappear to a film about the filming of such a movie.  Any hint of objectivity, an idea Imamura almost certainly is arguing as a false concept in documentary filmmaking, has been destroyed.

The film takes a step into near absurdity when the on-screen interviewer questions Yoshie about whether she has fallen in love with him.  She replies that she believes she has.  It’s a small jolt, bordering on hilarity, as the film up to that point had retained a procedural sincerity when confronting interviewees.  Everything I read about the film beforehand made a point to mention the development of Yoshie proclaiming her love for her interviewer, but it’s shown with such nonchalant casualness that it still feels oddly unexpected.  The scene has little ramification for the rest of the film and serves only as one piece of evidence that A Man Vanishes is much more ambitious than it initally seems.

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The picture above shows an omnipotent Shohei Imamura peering over the shoulder of his interviewer, perfectly illustrating the director’s chosen role as a puppetmaster silently pulling the strings without explicitly inserting himself into the action.  Imamura eventually removes the curtain to reveal the utter fictionality of his movie.  The two sisters and a fishmonger eyewitness argue over whether Sayo had been Oshima’s companion on a particular occasion and, thus, possibly involved romantically before the teahouse they’re in is revealed to be nothing but a movie set with collapsing walls.  The remarkable scene gives the audience a headscratching revelation worthy of any famous magician.  Immediately, the viewer’s mind races to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.  Imamura himself tells us that what we’ve just seen is fiction based on truth.

The argument continues in the street outside though, as Sayo maintains that she never walked with Oshima despite the fishmonger’s assertions to the contrary.  In these, the film’s final moments, repetition and frustration set in, shedding no new light on an already impossible situation.  Oshima is gone, probably never to return and possibly dead, and the phenomenon of Johatsu is just as much an enigma now as before the film began.  We’ve learned the details of Oshima’s existence prior to the disappearance only through recollections of people who we know as neither trustworthy nor duplicitous.  In making an examination into the nature of truth in cinema, Imamura has crafted his own spin on Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but without actors or a script.  

The persons interviewed are real people, but the question remains whether they’re playing themselves or being themselves.  There’s never any way to know these answers for certain in documentary films and the filmmaker is always free to skew the footage however he wants.  The on-camera discussions among the filmmakers in A Man Vanishes remind us that every little filmic choice affects the audience’s perception of these “characters.”  It’s essentially impossible for the viewer to be sure that a nonfiction film is ever reflecting truth since the line is constantly blurred between what is real and what is the reality intended for audience consumption.

By giving his audience this insightful experiment, Imamura blends truth with fiction and the perception of reality with the realization that everything we’ve seen is staged, to varying extents.  It’s a brilliant and thought-provoking look at film as a medium unable to show unfiltered truth.  The director’s patience to produce a 130 minute exercise, where the vast majority of the running time makes the film look like an ordinary missing persons investigation, was a daring thing to do to his audience, who may feel uneasy by the lack of a resolution.  While the time spent investigating Oshima’s disappearance is never uninteresting, it’s the reveal near the end that catapults Imamura’s film from a curiosity to an essential.

(Like most of Imamura’s films, A Man Vanishes is unavailable on DVD with English subtitles.  An interesting and worthwhile trailer, showcasing the wonderfully spooky score, can be found on YouTube for this fascinating film.)

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Pigs and Battleships March 12, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s, Shohei Imamura , add a comment

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Shohei Imamura’s breakthrough film Pigs and Battleships (translated onscreen as Hogs and Warships) is a grimy tale of the underbelly of a Japanese port town under American occupation following World War II. Released in 1961 (though not until the 1980s in the U.S., following the director’s first Palme d’Or win at Cannes for The Ballad of Narayama), the film now appears to be a precursor of things to come from Imamura and his fascination with the criminal lower class of postwar Japan. The four previous efforts from Imamura had been studio assignments and were much less indicative of the style for which the director later became known. With its mixture of anarchic, frenetic plot and dizzying, technical bravado filmmaking, Pigs and Battleships fits perfectly in Imamura’s claim that he liked to make “messy films.”

The film’s characters are unspectacular and common, noteworthy only for the truthful way Imamura approaches them. Kinta, a young man involved with selling pigs on the black market, stupidly agrees to take the fall for the yakuza in exchange for a significant amount of money. He has also impregnated his girlfriend Haruko, whose family wants her to prostitute herself either literally or in the form of marriage to some American sailor who can provide for her. These are not noble people or even worthy of sympathy in the hands of most filmmakers. Yet, Imamura seems to find comfort in the working class, regardless of how low down the food chain they are, and nearly forces the audience to share his empathy.

By balancing out the careless and greedy villains among both Japanese and American characters, the film seems to be conceding that Kinta and Haruko may be far from perfect but at least they’re harmless by comparison. I see it as sort of a white-collar crime vs. blue-collar crime argument where there’s no real defense for the minor improprieties of the common criminals, but their actions ultimately pale in comparison to the evil doings of military, corporate and organized malfeasance. The bumbling yakuza that Kinta tries to impress and the obnoxious American soldiers who act like overgrown frat boys are the real source of the problems presented in the film. The lower class who’ve developed some ideas of ambition (even if they have to sacrifice an honest living) are merely trying to adapt to the changing climate of Westernization and take advantage of the opportunities given to them, whether it’s working with organized crime or servicing the sailors who are stationed nearby.

Kinta may appear to be a dimwitted kid more interested in the lures of money and promise of Western-type material riches, but is he really the one to blame? Certainly it would be inaccurate to attempt to victimize him or shift the responsibility for the personal choices he makes. Nevertheless, as in many of the director’s films, Imamura somehow paints a heavily flawed character as our protagonist, one who’s comparatively not so bad and whose heart is mostly in the right place. He seems committed to Haruko and supportive of her decision to defy her mother by rejecting a passive, secondary role as wife/whore to an American sailor. While their relationship does appear to be more out of circumstance than genuine love, Kinta and Haruko still share a common bond of experience and hope for a better, more independent future.

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It’s with the character of Haruko that any hope to be found among the denizens of Pigs and Battleships must begin and end. The final shots of her literally meeting and passing by the hookers awaiting the incoming ship of sailors is both symbolic and affecting. Her rebellious encounter with a trio of Americans earlier in the film left her ashamed, but also more certain of what she wanted from life. When the opportunity presents itself to either stay where she is, doomed to a fate she doesn’t want, or set out on her own, Haruko displays an empowering self-reliance by choosing the latter. The character is like any number of young women from small towns all over the world - ordinary and average, but not content to spend forever stuck in an endless routine.

That all of this happens within a film usually referred to as a comedy or satire is all the more impressive, showing Imamura’s ability to blend absurdity with a bit of neorealistic poignancy. Though the climactic scene, where unleashed pigs (the animal variety, not the comparatively less innocent humans Imamura draws parallels with throughout the film) wreak havoc in the street, and the overall tone of the film are both laced with obvious elements of farce, Pigs and Battleships arguably defies being identified within any one genre. Just as there are moments of pure comedy, such as a well-placed insurance advertisement billboard, there are also heartbreaking scenes, drained of any humor, that allow the viewer to remember that Imamura wants you to laugh only after you’ve understood the seriousness of what’s at stake.

The film’s overall lively tone veers only a little from the irreverence you’d expect after repeatedly hearing John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” (part of a wonderfully playful score) in a film where everything American comes with negative connotations. Instead of seeming inconsistent, those forays between the harsh realities of postwar occupation and Kinta’s wild interactions with the yakuza and the hogs breathe life into the film that established Imamura’s unique place in the film world. Wacky adjectives like “madcap” often infect descriptions of Pigs and Battleships, but it’s the searing examination of truth, told with daft sprinkles of humor and the hovering feeling that an audience should laugh to avoid darker emotions like anger or sadness, that really makes the film stick out.

(Pigs and Battleships remains unavailable on DVD in the English speaking world, with an impending release from the Criterion Collection due at some point in the future.)

EDIT: Now promised for May from Criterion!

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? November 8, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , add a comment

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Bette Davis’ eyes and Joan Crawford’s eyebrows only appeared in one movie together. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, from 1962, somehow managed to hold these two acting powerhouses and their distinct features in the same film. In full disclosure, I must admit to not being a fan of either actress. I suppose I don’t have anything really against Davis or Crawford, but I’d much rather watch an actress like Stanwyck or Lombard. I am, however, a sucker for Warner Bros. two-disc special editions though so I gave it a shot and was reasonably impressed. It’s not a great film, but it’s a very good one that has much more value than as simply a camp classic, a label that’s never attracted my interest.

It begins with a prologue first showing “Baby Jane” Hudson as a child vaudeville performer with her sister Blanche looking on, upset at the attention lavished upon Jane. Next we jump to a few years later and Blanche is now a top Hollywood star with Jane riding her coattails to movie roles begrudgingly given to her by the studio to appease Jane. A car wreck ends the prologue and we learn Blanche has been paralyzed, ending her career. After the opening titles, the movie picks up with the story of Jane (played by Davis) serving as caregiver to Blanche (Crawford). Years of this have increased Jane’s unstable nature and she is slowly planning to phase Blanche out completely

Both performances are exceptional with Davis in the meatier role. She certainly takes full advantage of her character’s eccentricities and sometimes I found myself wondering if I was watching something a little too close to her real self. Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson may be the creepiest performance I’ve ever seen. Sure there have been more deranged, psychopathic characters in movie history, but for sheer batshit craziness I think Davis takes the cake (with a dead rat on top). Seeing a woman in her fifties with that atrocious makeup singing and dancing around to a song about her Daddy, the same number we had seen the character perform as a child, is just plain unnerving. She makes Norma Desmond look merely eccentric.

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Victor Buono, along with Davis, was nominated for an Academy Award for his impressive performance of a musical accompanist that Jane hires for her perceived comeback. He’s an interesting actor who died fairly young and was never really given the film opportunities his acting talent seemed to have afforded. Like his fellow thespian Burgess Meredith, Buono has become most recognizable as a costumed villain via his work as King Tut on the Batman television show. His performance in Baby Jane, though, is oddly compelling. It foreshadows several similar characters seen on television and in movies where grown men have a contentious relationship with their overbearing mothers.

The DVD featurette on Davis and Crawford was highly informative to a neophyte like myself and almost unbelievable in its discussion of the hatred these two women had for each other. The most entertaining anecdote occurred at the Oscar ceremony where Crawford was not nominated while Davis, of course, was. Crawford had made arrangements to accept the award if Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker, which she did. The scene of Crawford bypassing Davis to accept an award, even though it wasn’t hers, must have been something to see.

Director Robert Aldrich was the primary reason the film initially interested me. His brilliant Kiss Me Deadly is top of the line noir and The Dirty Dozen is great fun with one of the coolest casts in cinematic history. He shows up in the eerie trailer, included on the DVD and also worth mentioning for its non-traditional approach, and in a vintage making-of featurette on the second disc.

After the film’s unexpected success, the idea for a semi-sequel resulted in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, released two years later. Given her dislike for her co-star, it’s not surprising that Joan Crawford ultimately found a way out of the picture despite initially being cast. When Crawford was deemed too ill to shoot her scenes, Olivia de Havilland was brought in. The film also successfully reunited Baby Jane principals Davis, Buono and Aldrich.

It seems like there are two things frequently mentioned when discussing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - it’s described as a horror film and/or as a campy black comedy. I don’t see either as accurate. Scares and laughs seem antithetical to each other (though I realize some films have tried with varied success to accomplish such a dichotomy) and I didn’t react in either way. I found the movie enjoyable for what it was on the screen and was enthralled by Davis’ uncomfortable creepiness. It’s less of a horror movie than a minor suspense thriller. Since I don’t fully understand the joy of camp, I can’t really relate to that interpretation at all. I don’t think it’s necessary to limit the film’s appeal to fans of these categories, though, and I was impressed with how much I liked it after having fairly low expectations. The film may not be perfect, but it’s not like we have ample opportunities to see Bette Davis repeatedly kick a crippled Joan Crawford elsewhere.

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One, Two, Three June 23, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s, Billy Wilder , 1 comment so far

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“Any world that can produce the Taj Mahal, William Shakespeare, and striped toothpaste can’t be all bad.”

So says C.R. MacNamara, as played by James Cagney in Billy Wilder’s wonderful screwball comedy One, Two, Three. MacNamara is the West Berlin head of Coca-Cola trying to deal with an unhappy wife who wishes to return to the United States, negotiate with three loony Russians to bring Coca-Cola across the Iron Curtain and try to control the teenage daughter of his Atlanta-based boss, who comes to visit for two weeks which turns into two months. This is all taking place in the midst of the Cold War as Berlin is divided between the Communist and Russia-controlled East and the Capitalist and basically American-controlled West. Somehow, Billy Wilder manages to turn this premise into a rapid-fire piece of comedy heaven reminiscent of the great Preston Sturges films of the early 1940s.

The film really picks up when Scarlett, the aforementioned Southern belle daughter of MacNamara’s boss, briefly goes missing just before her parents are to fly in from Atlanta to take her back home. For the previous six weeks she had been sneaking out to East Berlin to see Otto, a staunch anti-capitalist, anti-American communist who planned to take Scarlett to live in Russia. The two had secretly been married. MacNamara quickly devises a plan to win over his boss, in hopes of being named the European head of Coca-Cola in London. That’s where the film really hits its stride and the viewer cannot help but marvel at Cagney’s hilarious and fast-paced performance.

You really can’t say enough about James Cagney’s performance here. While he will always be remembered for the gangster films, where he was usually riveting and added a dimension to the characters that other actors almost never could, Cagney was an extremely versatile performer who was adept in musical and comedic roles as well as drama. In One, Two, Three, he really excels and is able to give full justice to the madcap lunacy found in the screenplay written by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor who could pull off this role half as well as Cagney. On the surface, MacNamara is not a likeable character, but Cagney manages to make him simply gruff and grumpy in a way that the viewer can’t help but like the guy regardless of whether you like what’s he doing, reminiscent of the persona Walter Matthau later would adopt in many films. The rapid-fire delivery Cagney uses to such good effect here is a logical continuation of the style he developed in his gangster roles.

I must admit that Billy Wilder is my favorite director and I think that he made more great films than maybe anyone else, including One, Two, Three. He managed to balance humor and satire as well as any filmmaker whose work I’ve ever seen. He was remarkably versatile and his writing talents were just as impressive.

One final note, the poster art and opening title sequence for One, Two, Three, as well as a number of films such as Anatomy of a Murder and Spartacus, were done by Saul Bass, whose work I also admire greatly. In today’s era where most posters consist of plastering a picture of a movie star’s face against a dark background, making them almost indistinguishable from one another, it’s refreshing to look back at some of what Saul Bass created and appreciate his artistry.

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