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Le cercle rouge August 19, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , 2 comments

Something I’m fascinated by, as it manages to enter my thoughts at least daily, is what constitutes masculinity right now. In the DVD extras for The Ice Harvest, an underrated attempt at neonoir from a couple of years back, screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo, both of whom are quite accomplished in their own right, bandied about the question of what it really means to be a man in modern times. A male no longer must hunt and gather or physically provide shelter and protection for his family. Men don’t even necessarily come home in a suit and fedora to happy homemaker wives. So what is our purpose in the 21st century? If this type of behavior is essentially in our evolutionary DNA, what’s the substitute? There are no cattle to herd or fields to plow for the vast majority of us. Is it military service? I certainly hope not. The constant realization that rites of passage simply don’t exist as they once did torments me to no end. I’m not looking to enter the wilderness and return with a skinned animal on my back, but I find constant reminders in everyday life as to how a generation of young people are forever mired in adolescence and I suppose I’m looking for the cure.

So it is with the subject of masculinity - how to get it, keep it, not abuse it, etc. A line necessarily has to be drawn here between what I’ll label as John Wayne masculinity, meaning infallible, stubborn, conservative, and lacking intellectual curiosity, and Lee Marvin masculinity, stoic without completely forgoing considered emotion, lived-in, intelligent but not bookish, and coldly distant when necessary. The former simply doesn’t interest me and I see any sort of backlash against reasoned and informed discussion to be entirely wrongheaded. I’m much more fascinated by ideas of cold, emotionally unavailable professionalism. Of having a task and accomplishing it without complaint, hesitation, or flaw. In terms of film, there’s really no equal to Jean-Pierre Melville when looking for these qualities. He is, to my eye, the most masculine director to ever establish a relevant body of work. With apologies to Ford, Hawks, and a pair of Manns, Melville’s obsession so dominantly touched his signature films as to make others’ ideas of masculinity seem either superfluous or anachronistic.

It’s there in Bob le Flambeur and Le samouraï, but there’s really nothing like Le cercle rouge. Character after character, action after action, everything in the film is filtered through a coolly male ideal. We can picture ourselves as any of the five main characters, though it’s probably Alain Delon’s Corey we’d most like to be. Delon was a handsome bastard and probably the ultimate Melville protagonist. Icy blue eyes, sculpted facial features, not a care in the world. He gets a moustache here and somehow retains his coolness without looking entirely ridiculous. I don’t think it’s really possible to understand Delon’s Melville characters. They neither beg for attention nor affection. They are singularly concerned with performing a task. Emotions, while being hinted at and thus present on some level, are shrugged off in favor of a job, an existence. It’s not just the professionalism to admire, but the focus and confidence that preparation will lead to the proper fate. Not success, necessarily. Not even continued life. The goal is performance.

Delon’s character in Le cercle rouge is essentially stripped of everything. His apartment has been absent for half a decade while Corey was in prison. Cobwebs litter the place. The woman he loved, at least on some undefined level, is now with an unindicted co-conspirator. I appreciate that Melville doesn’t spend very much time on this detail. It’s established, Corey is wounded and given even more reason to resent Santi, but nothing can be done. Melville presents fate as a cosmic joke that neither needs nor demands fairness. To exist in a Melville film is to release any sense of happiness or entitlement. The director took all the unappreciated pessimism of American gangster and film noir pictures and transformed them into stark, desperate situations where the viewer roots for everyone and no one. Moral ambiguity feels entirely satisfying.

Truthfully, I think Melville questioned these feelings of right and wrong and the ethics of criminality. If Gian-Maria Volonte’s character Vogel, a fugitive on the run in Corey’s trunk, shoots a couple of mobsters to prolong his own life, how should the viewer react? It’s death, yet it’s also somewhat just and unquestionably satisfying. Corey and Vogel must continue on. They must eliminate these obstacles, and why shed a tear for a couple of guys whose job it is to kill others. Melville’s protagonists, for all their murky morals, kill those who must be eliminated by necessity. Blame is for other circumstances. Melville surely enjoyed these explorations of crime and criminals since he populated most all of his films in this fashion, but the beauty of these pictures, especially Le cercle rouge, is how controlled the director’s hand is throughout, how even coincidences are completely intentional.

Corey and Vogel are warmly given a sympathetic eye, as is Yves Montand’s ex-cop and current thief Jansen. However, possibly the most admirable character of the main five is Mattei, the police commissioner played by comic André Bourvil. Mattei is given nuance and portrayed as someone the viewer can actually relate to. The twin scenes inside Mattei’s home illuminate his paralleled lonely existence with Corey. The latter has cobwebs whereas the former has cats. Neither seems to care too much for their masters. Mattei’s life is filled with redundant predictability and a certain sadness. A police chief states that all men are guilty. They’re born innocent, but they stray invariably in the direction of corrupt forces. Mattei, like the audience, questions this. Is this pessimism really possible? All men have guilt in their hearts? Mattei is reasonable, focused, and not cynical enough to place guilt over proof. Yet, he’s portrayed as somewhat naive of the idea that all men are deserving of their fate, without justice entering the discussion. He looks at his job as a means to administer order and doesn’t really question what happens afterwards.

Though it’s really impossible not to be persuaded by Corey’s cool, it’s Mattei who serves as the film’s true protagonist. Melville gives us a surrogate at every turn, though not always the same character. Jansen is the tragic figure. Santi’s the most despicable from the outside, though how many of us would proceed differently if in his shoes. Vogel and Corey both have their functions, but also both share the same fate. Only Mattei emerges as narratively in the right. This is conflict to the extreme. The unflappable quality of Corey, where a cigarette is simply part of the uniform, begs to be supported. In a most basic sense, he and Vogel and Jansen are doing a job. This is their professional choice. It’s the task that has to be completed. Likewise, Mattei is the counterpart and his position requires Vogel’s capture. Thinking, contemplation, questions of motive are all out the door. The setting of go has now been activated and there’s no room to consider why.

This strict adherence to accomplishment is what I find so intriguing about Melville and his ilk. Ultimately, it’s not about exploring whether these actions should be occurring. The only thing of importance is the act of doing, which should be accomplished with the utmost preparation and professionalism. How do we really assure that our actions won’t be useless? Melville’s answer, I’d imagine, would be along the lines of the process being superior to the results. Witness his extended, incredibly daring sequence of Corey, Vogel and Jansen robbing the jewelry store. This ends up being all for naught, but Melville takes such great care in showing every little detail of the heist that the outcome becomes unimportant. The suspense lies within the small inflections. White gloves. Black masks. A single, specially-made bullet hitting its exact target with no room for error. This is the process in excruciatingly suspenseful particulars and without regard to the supposed goal. What does Melville spend the most time on? The jewelry store robbery. His final climax is cold, abrupt, and necessary from a narrative point of view. His concern seems much more on the heist and, to a lesser extent, its varied implications.

The maddeningly quiet nature of the robbery places the viewer very near a surveillance camera watcher’s perspective. Watching, watching, watching this all unfold, completely helpless. It’s certainly an audacious stunt from Melville, even eclipsing Jules Dassin’s similar scene in Rififi. The placing is odd, and, as such, keeps the viewer completely on edge. Every little detail is unveiled, down to those sterile white gloves Melville so preferred, and the risk of taking the viewer out of the film is always there. Without any dialogue and minimal sound, the long period of aural inactivity becomes almost displacing. Anything less than total concentration, befitting the very participants in the heist, may cause the viewer to struggle amid inactivity.

The temptation to cite Le cercle rouge primarily for its wordless centerpiece is hopefully not that strong. It’s an important, effective scene, but not one I find persuasive or essential enough to slight the remainder of the film. Melville’s themes and his ideas about masculinity, right and wrong, and what it means to be a professional remain foremost in my mind. I may be a fatalist, but I appreciate Melville’s treatment, or lack thereof, of growth in his characters. They do what they have to because that’s who they are. There’s no altering or maturing in the mix. It’s incredibly comforting to view life as a one-way street where we all operate as unalterable figures, unable to truly adapt or change. Death, and whatever it entails, can be the only outcome for fate’s worst dealings. I’m not in control and neither are you.

Little Murders August 10, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , 2 comments

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My enthusiastic suspicions have now been confirmed. Elliott Gould is, forever and always, one cool cat. I caught the Gouldness sometime after seeing California Split and The Long Goodbye in fairly close succession - amazed, humbled, and envious at every turn. Gould may not necessarily have been the best actor or movie star of the 1970s, but I do believe he came to epitomize the decade. Time magazine famously labeled him “Star for an Uptight Age,” a moniker borrowed by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Cinematek series dedicated to the actor. It fit way back then, even before anyone could have possibly put the laurel in perspective, and it certainly fits now. He’s never been Redford, Pacino, Hackman, Hoffman, De Niro, or Nicholson, but Elliott Gould, if you really think about it, probably represents both America and Hollywood in the ’70s better than his more popular, longer lasting peers. His films and performances remain as snapshots of the era, owing completely to that decade and unimaginable elsewhere. Gould’s neurotic comfort, knowing everything is messed up but not really caring, is the ultimate symbol of a time possibly invented in our own heads.

Gould has been all over the local New York papers in the last week or so, making for his second time in the sun in as many years. It was just April of 2007, coinciding with a run of The Long Goodbye at Film Forum, when he was treated to a Village Voice cover story, one that apparently was incorrect in stating Gould hadn’t seen an Ingmar Bergman film prior to working with the Swedish director on The Touch. Of some interest, that picture is being screened in the actor’s personal print on August 21st at BAM, and I hope to finally be able to see it. Just prior to Gould’s Scandinavian trek, he made the film version of Jules Feiffer’s play Little Murders, screened for the occasion and followed by a question and answer session with its star. Though the film is on DVD from Fox, I’d never seen it and the disc is now out of print, fetching large sums of money if you can even find it. (Why do DVDs go out of print again?) I’m disappointed to be missing out on a commentary with Gould and Feiffer, though rental may still be an option.

The new 35 mm print, struck by Fox especially for this occasion, looked beautifully ’70s, complete with the inherent grain that repertory mavens love. As I was new to the film, and generally don’t read much on movies I’ve not seen, my impressions were muddled. It’s deeply, darkly satiric, especially in the final portion, which resembles Buñuel more than any American film I can think of right now. There’s also a superbly daring element to the movie. It’s difficult trying to imagine the majority of viewers now, much less then, appreciating how dry some of the bits are. Gould’s character steps onto a crowded New York City subway car, covered in blood against his white clothes, and no one reacts. Jaded apathy to a fault.

In thinking back on the film now, I’m most struck not by the Buñuellian aspects, since I find a lot of those flat even in Buñuel’s tries, but the other, more reflective element. The particular scene that especially stands out is when Gould’s character Alfred, a nihilist photographer incapable of feelings and married as a challenge by a woman desperately trying to mold him, unfolds this long monologue about his younger days. He sort of became an activist and was monitored by the government, which lead to a guy reading his mail every day. After Alfred realized this, he decided to write letters to the surveillance man. The scene details this experience and it’s absolutely stunning, both in writing and performance. Gould, in great contrast to his Altman characters, is mostly quiet in the film and hearing him deliberately recount the situation makes for a brilliant scene. It truly ranks with the actor’s finer pieces captured on film. Just absurdly good.

This fusion of thick satire with more introspective cultural surveying leads Little Murders all over the place. The result is a slash and burn of American society, unleashed often without warning. Few films could be called uneven as a compliment, but this is probably one of them. Familiar faces come out of nowhere, likely owing to the picture’s stage origins. Alan Arkin appears briefly (and hilariously) as a disheveled police lieutenant working on 345 unsolved murders in the last 6 months. Vincent Gardenia gives a mammoth performance. Marcia Rodd, an actress I’m unfamiliar with and someone who doesn’t have a lot of film credits, is second-billed and also effective. In addition to Arkin’s short turn, Lou Jacobi and Donald Sutherland pop up in similarly gut-busting scenes. Calling them cameos would be almost disrespectful. The guy who perhaps steals the film out from under everyone is Jon Korkes, whose name and face I didn’t know. He was present tonight, too, and a quick peek at IMDb reveals nothing as substantial as his turn in this film. He’s entirely loony as Rodd’s brother, drawing laughs at every opportunity.

Arkin also ended up in the director’s seat. He actually has a few directing credits, but I’ve not seen any of the others. I can say, with confidence, that Little Murders is well-made, and not just competently done. Gordon Willis undoubtedly deserves some of the credit, as well. He’s near the top of my favorite cinematographers and his work here is typically excellent. Michael Chapman, who went on to shoot Taxi Driver and others, is credited as the film’s camera operator. So while it may seem that this was a low-budget kind of movie, the talent was undeniably there. Actually, from listening to Gould after the screening, I suspect he too had some input, and he did serve as a producer on the film. The Broadway version of Feiffer’s play, with Gould starring, only lasted a week, though it was more successful off-Broadway.

The original idea was for Jean-Luc Godard to direct, which would have obviously changed absolutely everything. Godard never directed anything in Hollywood or English so one can only imagine how different the film might have been. Gould wrote to the French director and got a response, which lead to a meeting in New York. As he told it this evening, Gould talked with Godard in New York about making the picture, but it never really went anywhere. He remembered walking with Godard down 57th Street, past Carnegie Hall, and realizing the collaboration wasn’t going to happen. “If my wife and child  ask me to tell them I love them,” Gould recollected Godard saying, “I tell them to go fuck themselves.”

I went in blind to the film and that was probably for the best. It’s certainly quite different than Feiffer’s Carnal Knowledge screenplay. You don’t know what to really laugh at or where to wince, etc. (though my audience was like a readymade laugh track at all times). The film can be overwhelming in its absurdity. I’m sometimes at a loss with that type of satire, finding it difficult to completely determine what exactly is being laughed at and whether the punch lines are as much on the audience as the target. Gould’s character here exhibits no emotion. We first see him as a photographer getting beaten up with a boxer’s mouthpiece affixed, simply waiting for his attackers to become tired. In some sense, his apathy is refreshing. Not everyone should live and die by emotion so how about exploring the even-keel guy. I’m not entirely sure this is fully rendered, but there’s so much thrown up in the film that you can hardly expect anything to really feel complete. Its charms are there for the picking, wholly without regard to convention.

Thought it now seems somewhat dated in its muted anger, Little Murders is still refreshing. A reminder that studios once did make films catered far, far away from the mainstream. It’s more than just a time capsule, and the film actually seems prescient now, tame in everything except its climactic absurdity. I wish we still had working writers like Jules Feiffer, those who were content with staying within the lines of the ridiculous components of satire and who could produce somewhat ordered insanity that, in turn, meant something more than half-hearted diatribes lacking any real bite. Gould is probably a one of a kind so I suppose I’ll accept what too few performances there are of his that really matter. In a decade when every other actor wanted to be like Brando, Gould seemed to want to just be himself, whoever that was.

The session that followed the film screening saw the actor drop plenty of names, including a mention that Sam Peckinpah wanted him as the lead in Straw Dogs. “Can you read between the lines?” the director asked. Gould responded, “I live between the lines,” as he expressed hesitancy at mixing his methods of working and living. A sly reference to poker games with Sidney Poitier at the Belafontes was also thrown in, though not really as a boast. Listening to him or reading his interviews, it becomes apparent that Elliott Gould is a supremely interesting and genuine guy.

He would start off answering people’s questions from a seemingly unrelated point, only to come full circle for an appropriate, well-considered and frequently candid response. If there’s any one thing I took away from it all, it’s probably that he comes across as someone who’s spent many, many hours in search of some form of introspection. A quick judgment might even brand Gould as a bit of a flake, but I don’t think that’s a particularly fair conclusion. No one could have imagined him as an essential movie star of the seventies. The fact that that actually happened, and that it didn’t last, must’ve taken a toll on him. To come to terms with it all, making peace with your temporary spot in the firmament, seems admirable.

I Am a Cat July 18, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , add a comment

I wasn’t sufficiently acquainted with Kon Ichikawa’s work (and, truthfully, I’m still not), but the entire tone of his relatively obscure I Am a Cat caught me somewhat by surprise. I’d loved Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, a deeply and darkly humorous look at the ridiculousness of war played against that looming seriousness that’s always prevalent in those kind of films. I was then ready for some kind of Japanese incarnation of Harry and Tonto. That’s really not what I got, though. I Am a Cat is definitely steeped in comic undertones, with Tatsuya Nakadai almost parodying himself, but it’s absolutely far removed from Harry and Tonto. Instead, we’re left with some odd tribute to Nakadai’s eternally grumpy protagonist and the stray cat who’s his only true confidante.

Nakadai is an English teacher at a local school. He’s put-upon like the patron figure of dozens of films and televisions shows. Viewers who are especially fans of Nakadai will appreciate how the actor comically rants about here. His home life is almost disastrous, with a ditzy (but attractive) wife, three young children, a loud school nearby that’s controlled by a corrupt businessman he loathes, and frequent visits from layabout friends. And the grey-furred, green-eyed cat! I was mistakenly under the impression that the cat narrates the film, but this is patently false. Only the very last portion, mere minutes, is told from the cat’s perspective. We instead get the ruminations of Nakadai’s decidedly upset protagonist.

As such, the film will appeal particularly to a pair of contingents - those fans of Nakadai and the cat lovers. I, with head hung in semi-shame, volunteer as a part of both. The feline aspect is an especially winning part of the film, though not the focus. Sure those susceptible to some whiskers and such will be satiated by the throwaway shots of the cat, but the film is pretty good otherwise, as well. Nakadai’s constant disbelief at everything around him is pure brilliance. Baseballs come flying across the fence from the school. Not just a stray one or two, but ball after ball. Nakadai blows a fuse and then ends up humiliated. Suddenly the actor is delivering pathos to this grumpy middle-aged man. The comedy is still there, but it’s now twinged with a bit of sadness. You realize the film is battling an entire shift in Japan society. Businessmen are corrupt and powerful. Their newfound wealth has lead to unearned snobbishness. And kids just don’t respect their elders. It may not be an entirely unique or profound message, but the point is made.

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Let’s get back to the cat, though. Furry little guy. Ichikawa completely plays to the kinds of moments that feline foes will loathe. The cat-friendly viewer smiles when the screen is filled by the whiskered star doing basically nothing except living up to the film’s title. Sure it’s pandering and the era-specific synthesizer music doesn’t help, but there’s a quaintness at play that saves these detours from harming the film. The cat is an important element in the movie and he serves as Nakadai’s companion when not out competing with a larger male for the affections of a female cat. The other male cat, called simply “Black,” provides by far the biggest laughs in a recurring bit about a weasel and his flatulence. There are few bigger crowd pleasers in an arthouse cinema than hearing Nakadai, with utmost seriousness, discuss “the fetid fart of the weasel” and its relation to the pride of this local cat community.

As the film winds down, we’re again left with that tragicomic malaise. Nakadai’s character has suffered a break-in that Ichikawa delicately plays for humor. The teacher even takes the cat to spend a night away from his quarrelsome wife. Problems also persist at work. Things just aren’t turning out well for him. Silently (unwillingly, you might say) supporting him through it all is the nameless cat. He’s taken up with the creature just when he feels let down and frustrated with everyone else. Things are necessarily changed for both by the ending, and I don’t want to spell it out here, but it’s unclear whether we should expect the Nakadai character to alter his languid musings or general grumpiness. Eccentric melancholy rules the day. For better or worse, we all have some fart of the weasel in us.

(Kon Ichikawa’s I Am a Cat is unavailable on DVD, at least with English subtitles. Masters of Cinema recently revealed plans to release several of Ichikawa’s films next year, but it’s unknown whether this will be one of them.)

Top 50 of 1970s June 1, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , 30 comments

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In all its glory, here are my choices for the top 50 elite films of the 1970s. This is the fourth such list I’ve made now, and it just doesn’t get any easier. As with the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the list has been submitted for the Criterion forum’s Lists Project. I made an intentional effort to abide by my own subjective whims this time, placing little or no emphasis on canon. My tastes are my tastes, but the goal was to balance between favorites and acknowledged quality while trusting that what I like deserves to be here. The strength of American films, combined with the R1 unavailability of several well-regarded foreign films of the decade, has resulted in a list heavily favoring the English language. Not a problem in my book because I love what was going on in Hollywood during this time. In all, there are only 9 foreign language films among these 50, with another 8 in the list of 25 also-rans I posted previously. I do hope a few people find the list and my justifications/appreciations interesting to look through, read, or browse for recommendations. I know I enjoy the whole process. Any writing I’ve done on a particular film is linked to below.

1.) The Godfather Part II (Coppola, 1974) - I’ve resisted the idea for years that Coppola’s sequel is superior to the first film, but I don’t think I can really deny it any longer after spending a full night with the two parts. This is a richer, more focused effort that completely understands what it wants to project and does so brilliantly. The acting has an understated balance often missing from the earlier film and the tragedy cuts far deeper. Michael’s reveal to Fredo that he knows and Michael’s slap of Kay both send chills down my spine. I don’t particularly see this entry as being about family so much as it is about America. I’m prone to reading the American experience into numerous films, but this must be one of the most glaring. From young Vito’s entry at Ellis Island to Michael’s returning the favor of betrayal as he sits in ominous solitude, Coppola’s film completely embodies a certain side of the possibilities offered by the country.

2.) The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) - Long having been one of my very favorite movies, the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s best-selling (but inferior) novel probably has as lofty a reputation as any piece of 20th century art. Impossible to encapsulate in such a short space, The Godfather’s memorably quotable screenplay (perhaps second only to Casablanca) begins with the immortal words “I believe in America,” but it’s the nonverbal power of the baptism scene that makes good on the film’s opening line. It remains one of cinema’s dazzlingly brilliant sequences. There’s a point where there’s possibly still room to turn back and then there’s running full speed ahead. The ambiguity and moral conflict is so murky that half a dozen viewings and I still don’t know if I’m rooting for the Corleone family.

3.) The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973) - Here’s what Robert Altman’s films can do to a person. You see something and enjoy it well enough, then watch it again a year later and recognize it was much stronger than you first realized. Another year passes, and you’re ready to consider it one of the finest films of the decade. Nearly all of Altman’s films improve on repeated viewings, but I’ve gotten it into my head that this is his best. It’s full of sly truths, an epic central performance from Elliott Gould, and has a pleasingly bizarre supporting cast lead by a toasted Sterling Hayden. It really is amazing to sit back and see what Altman does to the detective genre.

4.) Being There (Ashby, 1979) - A film that never peaks, always steadily rising until it literally walks on water. I find it incredibly sad that both Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby were unable to make anything of substance afterwards despite both still being relatively young. Sellers, of course, died in 1980 and Ashby followed just a few years later, but couldn’t continue making the kinds of films he so brilliantly crafted in the ’70s. Sellers seems like he’s actually gone crazy while the cameras happen to be rolling. His Chance is a reactionless blank canvas where everyone projects their own thoughts and inclinations. It’s rare for me to proclaim that I really love a film, in the sense that I feel both an emotional connection and would argue that it’s justified. I love Being There. I loved it the first time I saw it and I loved it the most recent time I saw it.

5.) Avanti! (Wilder, 1972) - A final masterpiece from one of cinema’s finest directors. Billy Wilder hit a creative roadblock after One, Two, Three that lasted the rest of the decade. His films were commercially successful, for the most part, but a little out of touch with a changing Hollywood. Too mean, too quaint, nothing that really stretched his talents. Then he had a very difficult time with the release of a heavily-edited version of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and stayed in Europe to once again re-team with Jack Lemmon. The result was a still-neglected gem that effectively modernized Lemmon’s growing crustiness with the hidden heart Wilder liked to slip into his ’60s films. I think I hold the movie up a bit higher than most anyone whose opinion I’ve read, but there does seem to be a quiet contingent privy to the film’s considerable charms.

6.) The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975) - None of Antonioni’s other films have struck me like this one. I don’t know if it’s because of Nicholson or exactly what the cause is, but this movie mesmerizes me. I see the alienation in his character more than the comparatively empty protagonists of other Antonioni films. The plot here helps a great deal, which is reminiscent of Hitchcock but told in an entirely different style. And just an extraordinary ending that might cause you to shake your head, rewind the disc, or both.

7.) Nashville (Altman, 1975) - It’s a bit on the surreal side for someone who grew up in middle Tennessee to watch Altman’s 24-character tapestry. Though my understanding is that the city wasn’t fond of how the film turned out, the critical consensus usually places it as the director’s finest. No serious arguments here, even if it’s not my absolute favorite. I don’t think Altman ever made a film so deeply and powerfully emotional. Gwen Welles breaks my heart, especially with the stripping scene coming just after Keith Carradine’s performance of “I’m Easy.” What had been this sprawling, unassuming epic suddenly converges into a dark place that becomes increasingly confusing and upsetting. Watching the final series of events, you’re filled with dread - knowing what’s about to happen, wanting it not to, and being unable to stop it.

8.) Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) - I don’t feel as much emotional connection to Chinatown as I do the films above it here, but it’s certainly on the same level artistically as anything past the Godfather films, in my estimation. What I like a great deal about the movie is how Nicholson makes Jake Gittes, a character that could have easily become bland (see The Two Jakes for evidence of that), an audience surrogate who’s neither too smart nor too stupid despite the notoriously curvy plot. He’s almost entirely grey and, thus, the perfect protagonist. The obvious thing to love about Chinatown is Robert Towne’s script, tweaked and improved by Roman Polanski. It’s truly a Hollywood miracle that works with a big concept (pre-war Los Angeles) while also achieving the more intimate character details that keep the viewer interested.

9.) Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973) - There’s a rawness at work here that isn’t present in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. This is less polished and feels more free. Despite my strong admiration for Scorsese, some of his signatures have gotten a little stale over time. Not so in Mean Streets, where the ferocious immediacy remains alive and well. The Catholic imagery is fresher here and, for all its rough edges, the film never recedes into the methodical violence of one upping the director’s legacy, which was obviously almost nonexistent at the time. I don’t think this was Scorsese’s peak for sure, but I do prefer it to Taxi Driver, and I think it remains his most personal film.

10.) Husbands (Cassavetes, 1970) - Am I allowed to declare this as Cassavetes’ best film? I hope so. It’s just a shame that it’s so difficult to track down (illegally downloading it onto your computer doesn’t count; if you’ve only seen a film in a poor quality version on a small screen in the wrong aspect ratio then you haven’t really seen it at all). Months after seeing Husbands, I still think about it constantly - wondering about the characters, about myself.

(more…)

The 1970s Also-Rans - 25 That Missed the Cut May 28, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , 6 comments

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Justifications, recommendations, and considerations. This is an alphabetical list of 25 films not included in my forthcoming Top 50 of 1970’s. Some things you’ve seen, some you may not have. I’ll repeat this when the main list is posted, but I made an intentional effort to be entirely subjective this time, leaving several of the usual suspects off and a few more in this group of also-rans. These 25 were not submitted in any way for my entry in the Lists Project and, thus, are just detailed here for fun. The 50 that did make it should be up on Sunday June 1. Happy reading and watching.

Badlands (Malick, 1973) - Film enthusiast heresy, but after not caring much for Days of Heaven I was pleased to discover how good of a film Badlands is. The substance I craved in Malick’s later film was more pronounced in his debut. That’s not to say it’s teeming with ideas. I get that same emotional disconnect from Malick as I often do from Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Herzog and a few other well-respected directors. There’s usually at least one film tucked away in the filmography of each that I do appreciate, and this is it.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974) - Mlles. Celine and Julie do indeed go boating, but it takes three hours of whimsical nonsense before their brief nautical adventure. Rivette’s film is so incredibly unorthodox, yet original and admirable, that it’s difficult to grasp even the most tentative of handles on it after just one viewing. Shiny jewels of dinosaur eye candy transport the main characters into participants of a melodramatic, tonally opposite movie from the previous hour or more. Strange is putting it mildly and I do think, even with Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier, that the film within the film drags on too long with unnecessary repetition. Otherwise, this probably would have made my main list. (I know admirers love to rhapsodize about the Alice in Wonderland, free form nature, but I’m not there yet.)

Charley Varrick (Siegel, 1973) - Follow-up to Dirty Harry for Don Siegel and, in my estimation, vastly superior. I wish Walter Matthau had more roles like his title character here and the transit cop he played in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (both films are treated poorly on DVD). His Varrick is one of Matthau’s classic protagonists - cool, collected and smarter than he seems. The only misstep in the plot is why in the world Felicia Farr’s character would sleep with Varrick. It’s worth overlooking, though. Surely Cormac McCarthy had this film in mind while writing No Country for Old Men.

Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973) - Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. The color red. Venice. Nicolas Roeg’s chaotically inspired editing. A creepy gnomish woman. There’s enough imagery to fill half a dozen movies here. It defies genre, working as a film about coping with losing a child, a crumbling marriage and a meditation on the supernatural all at once. The cinematography is gorgeous, one of the very few instances where the Italian city is done justice in an English language film. Despite all that, I’ve never completely broken through to the side of those who unapologetically worship Roeg and his work.

Emperor of the North Pole (Aldrich, 1973) - Excellent Depression-era film that’s far less known than it should be, released without the “Pole” in its title. Lee Marvin is A No. 1, a hobo known far and wide as being able to stow away on any train, but put to the test by Ernest Borgnine’s sadistic rail man Shack. Easily read as allegorical, but also quite entertaining merely for Marvin, the cinematography, and the story. Keith Carradine is, typically, a hindrance and annoying. Part of a strong late-career surge from Aldrich.

Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder, 1975) - Fox and His Friends can be disheartening, mostly because Fox is a character whose disappointment is apparent from very early on and there’s little sympathy to be found, but it remains a powerful experience. Fassbinder directs and plays Fox, a former carnival worker who finally wins the lottery and soon has his fortune spent by a “posh and prissy” lover. I’m never ready to watch a Fassbinder film and I usually have a difficult time getting over the experience. Fox and His Friends is exceptional because Fassbinder never hides the impending doom for his main character, but the viewer still feels almost violated for the harsh treatment afforded the protagonist, regardless of how simpleminded and shortsighted he is. Really an outstanding film that rises far above its limitations.

Gimme Shelter (Maysles, et al., 1970) - The music is one thing, but the human drama is something else entirely. As just a concert film, this is still completely entertaining. But as a chronicle of chaos, Gimme Shelter lives up to its name. Not too many films feature an actual murder captured on camera as their centerpiece. There’s no good reason this failed to rank highly in my actual list. It’s nearly flawless. I just had to bump something and took this out because, even with the musical performances, it’s not something I can watch with any frequency.

Harry and Tonto (Mazursky, 1974) - There’s a really sweet movie about an older man and his cat waiting inside here. Paul Mazursky, one of those semi-great writer/directors whose career never reached the same heights after the ’70s, gave Art Carney an excellent role and the actor responded by somehow winning the Oscar (over chumps like Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman, and Finney, all in prime roles). I like this one because it never overdoes the schmaltz and seems to know exactly what it is without trying to be anything more or less. Carney was able to turn his renewed interest into pretty good, but unsung pictures like The Late Show and Going in Style.

Images (Altman, 1972) - Inspired in part by Bergman’s Persona, Altman uncharacteristically explored a woman’s battle with schizophrenia while she’s in the country with her husband. Susannah York is unnervingly effective and the entire atmosphere Altman establishes is that of a psychological ghost story. I was surprised by how much I was drawn in to this film and it’s a credit to Altman that the influence of Persona is noticeable without being overwhelming, similar to what he’d do with 3 Women a few years later.

Junior Bonner (Peckinpah, 1972) - I feel like I should somehow justify both liking this film very much and excluding it from my top 50. I can’t do that. There are only 50 slots and I didn’t have room, but I’ve always loved this film and McQueen’s performance especially. One thing that’s particularly annoying is that it was shot in Scope but the DVD isn’t anamorphic, thus making it difficult to really appreciate what you’re seeing. Piling on, I first saw it pan and scan off television years ago. If I had the chance to see a theatrical print, my opinion would no doubt jump considerably.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes, 1976) - Ben Gazzara is an actor who’s always interesting to watch. Aside from the Cassavetes’ films, he’s also superb in Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed (and possibly Saint Jack, but I haven’t seen that yet). Here he plays that kind of sad, fatalistic masculinity that I tend to gravitate towards. Criterion’s Cassavetes set contains two notably different versions of the film - one at 135 minutes and the other at 108 minutes. In some ways, having the separate edits makes it more difficult deciding whether to include the film.

The Last Detail (Ashby, 1973) - A great Nicholson performance (iconic, even) that was smack in the middle of a very exciting time to watch the actor. Randy Quaid is quite good here also. Hal Ashby at this point had directed only The Landlord and Harold and Maude, but this is a more serious film, with an even greater sense of disillusioned meandering. I prefer both of those earlier movies, but The Last Detail is special for other reasons. That constant rejection of conformity found in Ashby’s work rises to the surface and gets its true embodiment from Nicholson, an actor seemingly finding new ways of playing anti-establishment figures with every role at this point. The military nature of the lead characters gives them a sense of implied authority that’s flat-out repudiated in the film.

Last Tango in Paris (Bertolucci, 1973) - More heresy, but this is the only time I’ve ever really been impressed watching Marlon Brando as an actor. I see the brilliance elsewhere, but it still always feels like emoting to the point of ridiculousness. This is different. This is real, it’s raw, and it’s painfully realized. Bertolucci’s film is also exceptional, if shaky at times, but it’s impossible to separate Brando’s performance from the whole. With Bertolucci you should always expect something scandalous so the broad sexuality didn’t affect me, but Brando here is truly iconic.

M*A*S*H (Altman, 1970) - Altman’s most popular film, and really the one he owed his career to, probably isn’t even in his top ten in terms of achievement, but I do like it all the same. Of course, the movie is also paled by the television show, though they are different animals. Regardless, I enjoy watching M*A*S*H for several reasons - it’s so obviously about Vietnam instead of Korea; the football game; Gould and Sutherland; the final loudspeaker announcement (spoken by Altman).

Maîtresse (Schroeder, 1976) - There’s a scene in this film that’s literally painful to watch for males. Some might add that the whole thing is painful to watch, but I was fascinated by Schroeder’s storytelling and the performances. Something about it (besides Bulle Ogier) is hypnotic, like a really well-made teenage sex comedy that’s removed the problems inherent in that subgenre. Gerard Depardieu is at his oafish best and Ogier is remarkable. Not everyone’s cup of tea (and I’m a little surprised at my own reaction), but just an enormously engrossing film.

Mikey & Nicky (May, 1976) - Seeing Peter Falk and John Cassavetes together is itself a treat. Watching how their relationship, let’s say, evolves over the course of this film carries a somewhat slow, yet involving, picture into an unforgettable indictment of friendship amidst the mob. Director Elaine May shot an almost inconceivable amount of film for this movie, which now seems like an omen for her doomed Ishtar. It’s speculated that Cassavetes directed much of this himself, but I don’t think it matters really. It does feels somewhat like one of his films (especially Chinese Bookie), though May was no slouch either.

Monsieur Klein (Losey, 1976) - Exceptionally compelling film about a French art dealer profiting from Jews selling their paintings during the German occupation who gets mistaken for a man of the same name who’s Jewish. One of Alain Delon’s best performances and impressive direction from Joseph Losey. I saw this in preparation for the last ’70s list, and I placed it on there, but I haven’t watched it since. I wish I’d had the chance to see it again this time around, as it’s a film which benefits from a second viewing.

Night Moves (Penn, 1975) - There’s a mood established in Night Moves by Arthur Penn, screenwriter Alan Sharp and Gene Hackman. It’s difficult to succinctly characterize, but you can feel it just by watching Hackman. It’s a great neonoir performance, in nice contrast to his Popeye Doyle and Harry Caul. The rest of the cast, populated by obnoxious and inferior actors, nearly bring down the picture for me, though. The other ingredients are there, but the couple of times I’ve watched it there seems like something’s missing. I usually end wanting to like Night Moves more than I do, which is still a considerable amount.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) - The first time I saw this film it had a profound impact on me. The next time it was much less affecting. Whether this has more to do with the film or the viewer, I can’t say. I’m not crazy about the final scenes so maybe that’s the cause. They feel rushed, jumbled, and their impact doesn’t hold up for me on multiple viewings. That said, the majority of the film, especially Nicholson’s strong anti-authority performance, remains rewarding and I do think this is one of the great tragicomedies of the decade.

The Phantom of Liberty (Buñuel, 1974) - The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is the more popular choice, but I think I prefer his follow-up. Sure it’s largely a thematic sequel that’s even looser in its narrative, but The Phantom of Liberty bites a little harder. You can almost see Buñuel grinning behind the curtain. The “missing” little school girl bit is inspired madness. And the sniper. And the toilets. And the dominatrix. After The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm, I’d say this was the perfect culmination of the director’s “search for truth” triptych.

Small Change (Truffaut, 1976) - Largely plotless, this is a beautiful example of a small movie that’s completely dialed down and perpetually rewarding. Truffaut looks at a group of young school children and their everyday lives both at home and in class. Simple, yet not really. The director’s keen ability to draw excellent performances from children is on full display here. A delightful film that exceeds expectations.

The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973) - Though they’re two very different films by two separate filmmakers, this and Cría cuervos share Ana Torrent and thus seem instantly comparable. I think most people prefer Erice’s film for its gothic difficulty and overtly political subtext, though I’m on the other side of the fence. The Spirit of the Beehive remains a unique, potentially shattering experience that I found a bit difficult to embrace fully without a good basis in Franco and the Spanish Civil War. That’s not to deny how affecting the film can be and the subtle rewards that await repeat viewers.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) - Extreme conflict for this viewer between a charismatically unsettling film and a character in Travis Bickle who just doesn’t work for me. Even reading others’ thoughts and watching interviews, I can’t see him as this universal avatar of loneliness. I can’t identify or understand Bickle, and I do not find him particularly interesting on screen. Setting that significant barrier aside, Taxi Driver remains a deeply engrossing, impeccably atmospheric look at a blank enigma shrouded in the filth of urban decay. I can recognize the fascination and it’s an entirely compelling film, but I want no part of Travis Bickle. I see no sympathetic qualities, only sympathetic treatment done brilliantly.

The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff, 1979) - Another film that I found completely engrossing (my enjoyment of the German language probably helped). A little Felliniesque perhaps, which is a positive. Not having read Günter Grass’ novel, I had no preconceptions going in, just that it had won the Foreign Language Academy Award and a controversy erupted later on. I do think the material we see on screen is handled well by Schlöndorff, whose first film Young Törless I also enjoyed a great deal. The young actor who plays Oskar really seals the deal, though. At times annoying, but always fascinating, his presence is vital to the film’s success.

Young Frankenstein (Brooks, 1974) - How did I leave this out?!? I feel guilty about all these also-rans, like I’ve somehow slighted their worth. Silly. If I’d had the opportunity to watch Brooks’ film more recently it might have eked onto the main list, but only so many hours in the day and so forth. There’s a wealth of things worth loving about this film. The acting is uniformly perfect, with everyone from Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle to Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn giving the kind of performance actors immediately become associated with their entire career and beyond. That’s not even mentioning Teri Garr. Or Gene Hackman’s blind man cameo. The “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number. Too much to love. Can’t say I’m a fan of the Broadwayization that Brooks has signed off on.

The Getaway May 17, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , 7 comments

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It’s not very popular to assert the opinion that The Getaway is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film. As just a casual Peckinpah admirer, I might be able to get away with it, but I know I’m skating on thin ice among the faithful. I can only imagine the dismissive reaction I’d have if someone called Sabrina their favorite Billy Wilder movie. It could be generational. Peckinpah’s films now feel very much like the product of a bygone era. They’ve influenced countless filmmakers, but show almost zero modernity in comparison to what’s come along this decade. His patience is not particularly in style nowadays. Yet, that laconic quality is part of why I appreciate The Getaway so much. The film takes its time from start to finish. It’s an action movie with very little action.

As far as movie stars who understood subtlety in the ’60s and ’70s, the discussion begins and ends with Steve McQueen. The idea of him overacting is inconceivable. Detractors might view this as an emptiness, but I’d beg to differ. While the method style of acting gained notoriety for overdoing emotions to the point of fake realism, McQueen didn’t choose this particular path. His style was far more contemplative. A look from McQueen could eliminate half a page of dialogue. I’d love to have seen what Jean-Pierre Melville would have done with him. Instead, we know what Peckinpah was able to achieve while working with the actor both here and on Junior Bonner, two of McQueen’s four or five best films. In The Getaway, he’s Doc McCoy, who suffers the remedial prison life until his wife (Ali MacGraw) pays a porn-like visit to a man with bureaucratic pull named Benyon (Ben Johnson).

Even MacGraw’s terrible acting works here in this particular scene. She’s so stilted, so uncomfortable, that the character inherits a blank slate of determination at any cost. With Doc out of prison, the next step is to further appease Benyon by robbing a bank with two of his thugs. The title of the film obviously alludes to the aftermath and not the actual heist, instructive because Peckinpah handles the robbery with an uninterested coolness. It’s quick, messy, and little more than a slight curve in the road. A half million is siphoned out, but McCoy’s unwanted partners become thorns. One is killed and one kills. Rudy (Al Lettieri) somehow survives after ambushing Doc, whose lack of trust saves him, but still fails to eliminate his greedy cohort. And we’re off on a chase where Mr. and Mrs. McCoy transport the bag of money around Texas, losing it in the process, before realizing Rudy and his new traveling companions (Jack Dodson and Sally Struthers) are just a few steps behind.

McQueen and MacGraw fell for each other while making the movie, and even if you can’t really tell much of anything from looking at her face, McQueen hardly hides his attraction. The naive outrage he has upon learning that she had negotiated his release from prison with her body plays like natural hurt. His initial confusion after re-entering the outside world and sitting beside MacGraw in bed is similarly realistic. In McQueen’s best movies, including the two he did with Peckinpah, the viewer can just see an uncommon intelligence at work behind his eyes. Never one to relish much dialogue, the actor’s subdued performances have rarely been given their due. I miss that style of underacting. It rewards audiences willing to actually pay attention to what’s on the screen instead of bathroom and obesity break pausing. Much is made of McQueen’s enormous style and charisma (and deservedly so), but, in the right role, he really was a terrific actor.

His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.

In a very logical sense, The Getaway is framed around a classic film noir plot. Several things negate it being a true noir (most obviously - when it was made, being filmed in color, and the ending), but the film’s structure of the protagonist being released from prison and subsequently taking part in an imperfect bank robbery is prototypical of the style. Indeed, McQueen would have been absolutely perfect as a film noir hero. This film is probably the closest he ever came to making what might be considered a neonoir, but the actor’s ingrown ability to play characters who seem to place an emphasis on survival over all else could have fit ever so neatly a couple of decades earlier. Doc’s relationship with the MacGraw character is both reminiscent of a femme fatale and a trustworthy moll. The actress’s vacuous inability to register on any level could only possibly be endearing in a film like this, where understated minimalism is applauded next to a vast landscape of unwritten Texas possibility. The less she says the more believable she seems.

It’s a bit absurd to try and figure out where the McCoys fit in among these criminals. Their almost total refusal to disrupt some fictional code of crime ethics prevents the viewer from harboring any ill will and McQueen’s charm tips the scales in his favor with spades. This overwhelming glamorization is a little disturbing for those who enjoy sleeping well at night. Doc is an ex-con bank robber who’s completely let off the hook by Peckinpah and screenwriter Walter Hill (working from Jim Thompson’s book). McQueen probably knew the audience would cheer him on and want his character to experience crisis without consequences. He’s right, of course. The thought of Doc receiving any kind of comeuppance would seem to be entirely foreign in lieu of how he’s portrayed throughout the film. These are glaring imperfections in a film that never makes claim of being anything but a fine entry in the McQueen legend. In that regard, it’s nearly flawless. In other facets, maybe less so. I tend to be forgiving to a fault with The Getaway because of its casual likability. Peckinpah was a director-for-hire and McQueen was out to further his legacy of cool, but I turn my head and forgive the blemishes.

This most recent watch of the film was on HD-DVD and it should be mentioned that an additional featurette about Jerry Fielding’s rejected score is here despite not being on the standard DVD release. Also absent but present on the high-definition release, I believe, are the bank robbery sequence with Fielding’s score and the entire film with his isolated score as an audio track. Quincy Jones scored the film as released and it’s mostly excellent, but Fielding was a close collaborator with Peckinpah up to this point and his contribution is an interesting addition. Certainly this hi-def version is superior to the regular DVD release because it contains additional supplemental material. However, I will add that skin tones are quite red, almost distractingly so early on, but detail and clarity are predictably excellent and better than the DVD.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes April 7, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s, Billy Wilder , 4 comments

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When looking at Billy Wilder’s films as director, there are four that especially stick out in terms of incompatibility with the rest. The Emperor Waltz is a Bing Crosby musical and generally regarded as unsuccessful on most every level. The Spirit of St. Louis, despite being a fine film, puts Wilder in studio-constricted biopic land. Witness for the Prosecution, another excellent movie, has few, if any, of Wilder’s signatures and seems like it could have been made by at least half a dozen other competent directors. Then there’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Wilder’s 1970 needling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythic detective. The film exists only in a version that was drastically shortened from the original intentions of Wilder and his longtime screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond, but it still manages to feel like a cohesive, brilliantly executed whole.

There are certainly several of Wilder’s fingerprints in the picture, it’s just that the use of such a well-known character and the Scottish locations, among other things, feels like fresh dust. It’s a perfect marriage of classic Hollywood filmmaking with the newfound freedoms that resulted from an especially creative period in American movies. For some people, the problem may be that it’s not entirely either one of those. The pacing is deliberate and relaxed, yet the first half hour has little to do with the remainder of the film. Holmes and the trusty Dr. Watson may be familiar names ingrained in most of our memories, but the portrayals are hardly consistent with interpretations up to that point. Holmes, in particular, is much more ambiguous and complex, with noncommittal sexual preference, questionable decision making, and an unapologetic dependency on cocaine.

These are attributes parsed from the original stories, to be sure, but they still vary significantly from the consensus of Holmes as an infallible master of deduction. Robert Stephens, whose cocktail of whiskey and sleeping pills during the shoot delayed production for weeks, plays Holmes as prim, proper and arrogant, all attempts to mask the character’s sadness. Colin Blakely’s Watson is just the opposite, convivial and slightly bumbling. Both performances are perfectly used by Wilder, regardless of how they fit in with Conan Doyle’s mythology. As we see in the film, Holmes scolds Watson repeatedly about his extreme glamorization of the detective’s work. Considering these are two of the most famous fictional characters in literary history, it’s undeniable that Wilder and Diamond had a difficult task in bringing their skewed version of Holmes and Watson to the screen. The interesting thing is that the film seems destined to disappoint both those looking for a Sherlock Holmes movie and the ones interested in a typical Billy Wilder effort. And yet The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is an exceptional film. No wonder it was a commercial disappointment! Who’s supposed to embrace this thing again?

People who enjoy quality filmmaking, for starters. That initial half hour, when Holmes and Watson are mysteriously summoned to a Russian performance of Swan Lake so that the star can request the detective’s paternal seed, is so good that you wonder why other films don’t frequently employ episodic structures. Of course, that was Wilder’s intention, to present a series of four episodes, all of which were filmed and ready to go. A story about a Belgian woman dropped on the doorstep of Holmes and Watson, leading the trio to Scotland and an apparent encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, comprises the remaining hour and a half while the other two portions were cut. In terms of holy grails of lost footage, as much as I’d like to see Orson Welles’ more complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, I think I’d be equally anxious to see the full version of Wilder’s film. It’s a huge credit to Wilder’s ability as a director that even with the severe edits he was able to produce something as brilliant as the existing cut is here.

After Gabrielle Valladon (played by the lovely Genevieve Page) is deposited at Holmes’ Baker Street address, Wilder does well to produce a subversion of the famous character’s well-documented skills, veiled in a pretty good mystery. At some point, it seems natural to try and understand why Wilder and Diamond would bother in making a fairly difficult film with Holmes as the center. The best explanation I can come up with would be the desire to portray Holmes as a man wrongly described, whose actual attributes are far more humanlike than what’s shown in the stories. It’s the burden of brilliance, but also the inconvenience of not being as intelligent as your superhuman reputation. There are several chuckles, but the film certainly isn’t a comedy so I don’t think that was ever the aim, to place Holmes in a simple and slightly comic series of situations. It would seem more that the idea was for a repositioning of the Holmes character as a man unable to deal with his basic loneliness and alienation, soothed only by pompous one-upping of his sidekick Watson and frequent drug use.

The Holmes here is ultimately a failure at the hands of technology, bested by his brother Mycroft, who, in turn, suffers a major miscalculation of his own. So is it the dissolving of myths that Wilder is interested in? Is this his Liberty Valance? Yeah, I sort of think so. Though he was only 64 at the film’s release, and would churn out four more pictures afterwards, Wilder created his definitive “old man” movie here. The call-backs to a more classic style even than in his previous few efforts and the patience of experience he displays are both important elements to bridging the old with the new. Even when Wilder was younger, he didn’t normally employ the classical and calculated sense of purpose seen here. The structure is considered and nearly perfect. This is part of why it’s so incredible to think that the film was initially envisioned as much longer. The existing version feels appropriate as it is, only marred, in my opinion, a little by the first part of the Loch Ness Monster bit.

When Sherlock Holmes fails to really do much of anything right, despite his predictably shortsighted detective work, it’s at the expense of volumes of lionizing literature. The film thus works as a warning against the perils of smug overconfidence. For Holmes, the sticky truth isn’t that he’s a failure (something he seems to be fighting against throughout), but that a promising opportunity for romance has been squandered. It’s a slow realization, but by the end it’s obvious that he’s in movie love with the not-really Belgian Gabrielle/Ilse. The sexuality aspect here is interesting because Wilder and Diamond put it at the forefront for the viewer. Holmes’ reluctance to declare his heterosexuality to Watson early on seems to be due to one of three reasons: 1.) He’s being coy; 2.) He’s unsure himself as to his current feelings; or 3.) He’s so desexualized as to make it seemingly irrelevant. I think any of these three explanations work perfectly fine. With any of them, Holmes makes it obvious that he’s not actively searching for female companionship, making the presence of Gabrielle/Ilse a difficult situation.

The forced push at the end, when Holmes seems to realize his feelings for her just when she’s no longer attainable, serves as another reminder of how empty his life is. Watson and his silly stories are just about all the character has going for him. Then when it looks like the audience will be treated to the usual ending wrapped in sentimentality, Wilder continues the film and, in so doing, removes any trace of happiness. Watson is little more than a hyper-intelligent canine with a medical bag and Holmes the junkie can only shoot up and pass out (off-screen, of course). In essence, this is Wilder’s most daring film since Ace in the Hole, and it appeals to generally no one outside the director’s most devoted followers. He was able to completely demystify a legendary character with a huge following, using a fully sincere approach, while also putting together a deceptive genre story that proves quite entertaining. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is destined to remain largely unappreciated because it has few of the attributes Wilder is most known for, but it’s nevertheless an atypical slice of brilliance from the director.

Wilder himself apparently disagreed. In Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is characterized by its creator as basically a great film ruined by later editing after the director went off to another country (shades of Ambersons). Wilder retained final cut in his contract, but a terrible test screening and a supposedly misplaced negative resulted in the trimmed version, topping out at 125 minutes, being what hit theaters. Other reports seem to indicate Wilder was agreeable with the existing edit. Regardless, upon release it promptly sank, just like Ace in the Hole. Wilder had gone four years since the release of his last film, The Fortune Cookie, and it’s not surprising that audiences mostly stayed away from this one. The financially successful films of 1970 were either epic spectacles like Aiport and Patton or then-daring expressions of a new generation like M*A*S*H and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Ironically, despite the freedom afforded Wilder that probably would have been unimaginable a decade or two earlier, his audience was no longer interested.

The saga of the film’s different incarnations is well documented on the R1 DVD, which ported over several of the laserdisc extras. A new 15-minute interview (from 2003) with Christopher Lee, who plays Mycroft Holmes, doesn’t shed a lot of light on the various cuts, but it does give Lee the chance to single out Wilder as the best director he’s ever worked with, and it also lets the actor reminisce on his own turns playing Sherlock Holmes. The film’s editor Ernest Walter, the man referred to by Wilder in Crowe’s book, goes into great detail about what was cut and so forth in a half-hour interview from the mid-nineties that was originally on the laserdisc. Then, you can see for yourself much of what was removed. A prologue with Colin Blakely as Watson’s modern-day grandson would have further set up the idea that these four episodes derived from material deemed too private to be published in Holmes’ lifetime. This particular portion is told on the DVD from still photos and script excerpts, but the viewer definitely gets a good feeling of how it might have turned out.

The crude reconstruction continues with one of the excised sequences, a lengthy story involving an upside down room. It has audio, but only photographs instead of video. I think this would have been an exceptionally strong portion of the film had it remained because it reinforces the idea that Watson cares deeply for Holmes and that the detective is sort of miserably entwined in his own intelligence. The next scene removed was a brief flashback where Holmes and Gabrielle/Ilsa are just about to go to sleep on the train. The scene was intended as a means for explaining some of Holmes’ reluctance to become romantically involved, stemming from an incident with a schoolboy crush who turned out to be a prostitute. This too would have fit perfectly within the film and improved the existing scene without bogging it down.

The final episode not in the finished film exists on the DVD in letterboxed video, but is missing the audio. The dialogue from the script has been inserted as subtitles. The scene is very funny and concerns Watson putting on Holmes’ hat (literally) and trying to solve a murder. In relation to the rest of the film, it seems to fit the least of the cut portions. If the movie had been made today, this little bit could have worked perfectly as a DVD-only extra or even a short intended to run before the film. All total, there’s over an hour of extra material here, all of which was shot and excluded from the final cut. The inclusion of this footage on the DVD is really something to be thankful for, but the hope that somehow Wilder’s full version could be restored still nags.

Husbands August 7, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , add a comment

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A one-sentence synopsis of the John Cassavetes film Husbands might read something like: “Three married assholes combat mid-life crises and their own mortality with a booze-filled jaunt to London.” Such a simple dismissal could be appropriate if you’re not familiar with the wrenching, even crippling, films Cassavetes directed, like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, or if you don’t care for his unique and challenging style. As a filmmaker, Cassavetes is a divisive figure. The most apt word I know when describing his films is “raw,” melting away all that is left of the human soul until we’re left with both the painful and the joyous and none of the interstitial irrelevancies. Life and truth and the pretentious arrogance of art all come together for a couple of hours so that viewers can feel more human, and less alone in the world. Understandably, this is not what many people would classify as entertainment, the main thing I’d guess most audience members are looking for when they watch a movie.

Admittedly, his films even divide my own competing needs for substance and satisfaction and their brilliance seems borne out of the same place that causes self-indulgence and bloated running times. A signature Cassavetes film, to me, leaves the viewer in a far worse mood by the end than however he or she felt prior to watching it. His movies are not so much enjoyable experiences as they are necessary ones, substituting a searching numbness for the typical overwrought disposability found elsewhere. Regardless, there’s no sense of regret over the emotional scars we get from Cassavetes’ films when we’re also given such revealing peeks into the human condition. We may be hurt by what he shows us, but we know we’re better off for having seen it. That awkward nerve he’s unafraid of striking over and over is one mostly ignored in mainstream movies.

The way Cassavetes tends to accomplish this is by creating flawed, real people with natural problems and experiences. It’s not exactly true to everyone’s life, but it still resonates as far closer to reality than more conventional movies. Pain and sadness aren’t accentuated by pop songs or a swelling orchestra. There’s no requirement for redemption or absolute coherence. As in Husbands, most, maybe all, of the main characters in Cassavetes’ films are, indeed, easily and accurately described as assholes, often selfish, insensitive and/or puzzled at where it all went wrong. The striking exception is Gena Rowlands’ Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence, and her reward is debilitating mental illness.

With Husbands, we have three such protagonists, Gus (played by Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara), and Archie (Peter Falk). The opening credits describe the picture as “a comedy about life death and freedom, ” but it’s mighty difficult to leave these guys with a smile on your face. The film opens with a photo montage of the men horsing around with their families and a fourth friend, whose funeral is the first thing we see taking place. It ends with Gus returning to his family and a black screen. No “The End” because there is no end, perhaps. In between, we see the fragile lives of the three men come full circle over only a few days. We learn Harry’s wife doesn’t love him and Archie has a happy marriage despite feeling his wife is an inadequate lover. All three are weak, arrogant, and childish, skirting responsibilities in favor of drunken all-nighters and a spontaneous trip to London. They’re also charming, likeable, and funny, and, for much of the film, the viewer may see them as sympathetic. These are men we’ve known at some point in our lives, maybe as friends or maybe even a little too much like ourselves.

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Following the funeral, Harry, Gus and Archie go out for drinks and end up amidst a group of individuals taking turns singing a song of their choice. It’s a great scene, embodying much of what makes Husbands so compelling and frustrating. The three men are jovial and completely believable as long-time pals. Gazzara is hilarious as he berates the lack of passion in the lady sitting next to him. Falk has an inspired moment where he strips naked and Cassavetes is basically holding court throughout, directing even while playing his role. Again, they’re assholes, but you enjoy watching them. At the same time, it’s remarkable how long Cassavetes the director stays with the scene, allowing song after song with little concern for advancing the “plot.” This indifference to cinematic norms is striking and effectively gives us more than simply a snapshot of the three men at the center of the film.

By devoting so much time to an otherwise ordinary event in these people’s lives, Cassavetes let’s us get to know the characters with little dialogue or action. Falk’s Archie is the most submissive - still volatile, but easily swayed by the other two. (His lack of suavity is later on full display when the men visit a gambling hall in London and Archie has a couple of priceless encounters with women of a certain age.) Both Harry and Gus appear more confident and gregarious, traits later confirmed as the film progresses. They’re also incredibly selfish individuals and not really very good friends to one another. When a sick Archie begs to be alone in the bathroom, Gus laughs at him and refuses to leave the stall while an unsympathetic Harry is in and out of the room clutching his beer. It’s not that they don’t like each other or regret being friends. No, these men, as we see them, are incapable of being good friends or good husbands to anyone, and the short time we spend with Harry and his wife only furthers the idea that these men are basically pathetic creatures unable to cope with the responsibilities of aging.

With the death of their fourth wheel and disintegration of Harry’s marriage, the solution becomes a journey for alcohol, gambling, and women in London. We see each character’s attempts to charm members of the opposite sex and various stages of their clumsy seductions. It’s almost impossible, I’d think, to watch Husbands with an audience and not feel uncomfortable twinges at the purposefully overlong sequence of ambiguous and violent foreplay between Cassavetes’ Gus and his English one-night stand Mary, played by Jenny Runacre. “When is this going to end and how far is Cassavetes (whether as actor or director) going to take it,” I thought to myself. But it’s exactly this type of interactive dialogue between what’s on the screen and the viewer that makes his films so exhilarating decades after they were made. The contrast between what Gus wanted from Mary and Archie’s completely different needs from the woman he’s brought back to the hotel is played absolutely brilliantly. Violent, chaotic camera movements in the former transition to a still, almost frozen framing by the camera on the latter.

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A common reaction, knowing that Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Falk were very close in real life, especially after filming Husbands, might be to wonder just how much the film mirrors the actual relationships and personalities of the three stars. It’s likely that much of the dialogue was improvised, either while filming or during rehearsal, but it’s not very helpful to speculate beyond the idea that each actor was playing a character they helped shape while performing alongside two men they socialized with and knew away from the camera. From reading several articles and watching the many interviews with the director on Criterion’s essential John Cassavetes - Five Films box set, plus knowing that he died from cirrhosis of the liver at 59, my impressions of Cassavetes lead me to think he was absolutely similar to the character he plays in Husbands. That’s all anyone who didn’t know him personally can really come away knowing though. If anything, the idea that we’re seeing the three actors play their roles through a murky mirror only makes the film more brave and affecting.

As with other Cassavetes films, like Shadows, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and, to a lesser extent, Love Streams, there are multiple versions of Husbands. The original cut debuted at the San Francisco Film Festival at 154 minutes and was reportedly met with many audience members walking out before it was over. Apparently a portion of the material that was cut prior to the film’s general release consisted of added vomiting footage when Falk feels sick in the bar bathroom. The running time on IMDB has 138 minutes for the original release and 131 minutes for a television version. Columbia did release the film on VHS (though I’ve not seen it) and listed 140 minutes as the running time.

The print I recently saw projected theatrically at the Museum of the Moving Image was advertised to be 154 minutes, but actually ran closer to the 131 minutes IMDB lists for the television version. Cassavetes’ widow, Gena Rowlands, has apparently made sure that only the shorter cut be in circulation. Currently, there isn’t an official DVD release on the horizon for any version anywhere the world, with Sony controlling the rights in R1. It goes without saying that such an omission is extremely disappointing, but also unsurprising given Sony’s lackadaisical treatment of back catalog titles on DVD.

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The Long Goodbye - Revisited April 27, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , 3 comments

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I wrote a few paragraphs about Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye nearly a year ago, when I knew even less about movies and writing about them than I do now and before I realized any one else would see my drivel.  I was perceptive enough then to guess that an additional viewing would greatly enhance my appreciation of the film and my instincts proved accurate.  As with Altman’s subsequent teaming with Elliott Gould, California Split, the director’s update of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe mystery improved dramatically on a second screening.  Seeing both in fine-looking theatrical prints surely helped, but it was just as important to sit down and relax with the film, enjoying its little inspired touches instead of focusing on the advancement of the story.

The plot, a little convoluted and slightly tweaked from Chandler’s novel, proved to be much less a distraction than it was the first time I watched The Long Goodbye.  It keeps everything in gear and running properly, but isn’t what makes the film so fun.  The source of enjoyment instead rests on the shoulders of Elliott Gould and, in a duel of the crazies, Sterling “Balls” Hayden, who’s almost painfully realistic as a drunken novelist.  Gould’s inspired performance had actually been preceded by a psychological examination mandated by the studio.  He hadn’t worked in almost two years, after going to Sweden to do The Touch with Ingmar Bergman.  The character’s frequent muttering, often dubbed over to give the impression the viewer is hearing Marlowe’s thoughts I presume, makes him also initially seem a few cards short of a deck.  As the film progresses, though, Marlowe is shown to actually be the most sane and decent character in the film. 

With nearly twenty-five years of hindsight, the cast of characters reads like a guest panel on a B-level celebrity game show.  The motley assortment includes Laugh-In regular Henry Gibson, Nina Van Pallandt, who was the girlfriend of noted hoax artist Clifford Irving, Mark Rydell, director of On Golden Pond, future California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, baseball player and author Jim Bouton, and, of course, Johnny Guitar himself, Sterling Hayden.  Altman’s casts are often eclectic, interesting mixes, but several of these gained added notoriety after The Long Goodbye.  The oddness of the ensemble only adds to the weird feeling emanating from the film.  Even in the 1970s, there’s almost nothing that really compares to Altman’s film.  It’s a completely unique experience and doesn’t fit comfortably within any genre or category. 

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Appropriately then, Gould’s Marlowe doesn’t really fit within the established mold for movie private eyes.  Laid back, striking matches in nearly every scene, and almost always ahead of the person he’s talking to, this Marlowe is one for the ages.  ”It’s okay with me,” is a favorite phrase, mumbled repeatedly by the detective.  Elliott Gould is everything I like about off-center film protagonists here, cool and quirky without being annoyingly hip or goofy, and watching The Long Goodbye makes me think I’d be happy if he starred in every movie I ever watched.  The bottled lightning captured here unfortunately didn’t translate into many other films though, and Gould’s leading man days were short-lived.  The reasons hardly matter, but it’s nearly impossible not to wonder how he segued from the two back-to-back Altman films into some of the dreck he’s done since. 

Much of the charm in watching the film a second time comes from Gould and the details shown indicating Marlowe has literally been transported from the late ’40s/early ’50s, waking up at the beginning of the movie suddenly in the ’70s.  That’s not a problem for Marlowe (”It’s okay with me,” he might say), but there are a few giveaways in the film that show the audience that the world has passed him by.  He still drives a 1948 Lincoln Continental (Gould’s actual car at the time), dresses from a previous era, and the specific brand of cat food he wants is unavailable in a large supermarket.  He’s literally been transported to the early ’70s, with the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who bathes much of the film in a sun-baked haze, epitomizing the iconic Los Angeles atmosphere established in movies and television shows of the color era. 

Then there are the deeper, more serious parts of Marlowe’s anachronism.  Deceit and disloyalty are at every turn and friendship doesn’t mean what it once did.  By the end, Marlowe seems genuinely hurt by what his friend Terry Lennox has done both to him and Lennox’s wife.  A man he thought was a friend has betrayed him without any hint of remorse and Marlowe is forced to adapt to a time that had previously felt foreign.  The beginning and ending snippets of “Hooray for Hollywood” take on opposite effects, hopeful nostalgia deteriorates into cynical frustration.  The Long Goodbye is given new meaning, a metaphorical descent from a better place perhaps.

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Playing to substantial crowds and a good deal of publicity (it’s not every day an actor gets a Village Voice cover story, much less one whose halcyon days were thirty years ago) at New York’s Film Forum this past week, The Long Goodbye may be part of the beginning of the rediscovery and reevaluation of Robert Altman’s creative peak of the 1970s, following the director’s passing last November.  Not that Altman hasn’t enjoyed a vocal group of supporters for several years, but death does funny things to the public conscience and posthumous reverence seems more common than living accolades.  People tend to take notice when someone’s gone often more than even if they’re still around making quality, relevant work as Altman was as late as the last year of his life.  Witness the individual DVD releases of three of the director’s films these past five months, all announced after his death, as an example of death being a perspective changer. 

Death probably changes how we look at artists as well, maybe in a subconscious way or maybe more willfully.  I know I watched one of Altman’s films the night after his death and I’m sure at least hundreds of others did the same.  Because his movies often use character more than plot, they shine brighter with additional viewings and The Long Goodbye is typical of this.  I noticed numerous new things when I saw the film again and the aspects I liked the first time were even better.  The repeated use of the title song never gets old and the inventive ways Altman found to stick it in scenes was much more noticeable this second time.  Particularly, the cutting back and forth between Marlowe at the grocery store and Terry Lennox driving in his sports car while using different versions of the song for each setting was brilliantly done.  I’m not sure how many new things are still waiting to be discovered in a third viewing, but maybe I’ll find out next year and let you know.  Or maybe not.  Whatever.  It’s okay with me.   

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Vengeance Is Mine February 4, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s, Shohei Imamura , 1 comment so far

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Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  - Romans 12:19-21

Shohei Imamura’s 1979 film Vengeance Is Mine takes its name and some of its subtext from the Biblical passage quoted above, part of Paul’s contribution to the Book of Romans.  On its surface, the film concerns a serial killer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata, in an impressive performance) who eludes capture for 78 crime-filled days despite being prominently listed as one of Japan’s most wanted fugitives.  It was adapted from a popular Japanese novel that recounted the true story of Ryuzo Nishiguchi, whose name was changed for the book, and his gruesome killing spree.  What makes the film so interesting, though, is Imamura’s approach to the material and his almost total lack of concern for any element of suspense.

Instead of teasing the audience with pounding music and frequent cuts to a helpless victim, Imamura treats us to a movie where the killings are far from the focal point of the story.  Some of the murders are seen onscreen while others are not, even if the victims are anticipated such as the elderly lawyer we later see lifelessly crouched inside a dresser.  The character of Enokizu is a soulless sociopath, as likely to selfishly take a taxi the attorney has waited for in the pouring rain as he is to enjoy a meal and a bottle of wine in the old man’s apartment after he’s murdered him.  Yet, by often not explicitly showing the killings, Imamura automatically devalues any shock or suspense element otherwise required for a typical film about a serial killer. 

Through this approach, the director is able to emphasize the sociopathic nature of Enokizu as someone who finds no more excitement or rush in his violent crimes than in other mundane tasks, with the idea being that oftentimes neither are important enough to show onscreen.  Instead, we frequently see Enokizu engaged in sexual acts and he’s repeatedly shown to have a voracious carnal appetite.  He obviously uses sex, not murder, as his main form of pleasure, thus making his multiple killings even more difficult to understand.  Maybe Imamura is making some other statement in regards to Enokizu’s apparent addiction to sex, but I’m not sure what else it might be.  Enokizu’s manner in each activity sharply contrasts the other since he clearly kills out of opportunity more than necessity, but seems to openly crave, even require, sex.

Part of what makes Vengeance Is Mine so compelling and unsettling is the almost total lack of distinction to be found in the Enokizu character.  We see barely anything that makes him different or more monstrous, aside from the actual crimes, than any guy walking down the street at any time.  The performance of Ken Ogata allows the character to blend in to his surroundings and make Enokizu seem wholly unremarkable if he were not a vicious murderer.  We’re also given no reason for Enokizu’s behavior aside from an early loss of respect for his father that hardly justifies or explains his callous indifference.  Imamura avoids any other attempt at rationalizing this evil, as though saying its existence is neither understandable nor preventable, but an undeniable fact of life nonetheless.

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It’s that idea that seems to provide the inspiration for the title of Vengeance Is Mine.  It’s clear that the general interpretation of the Biblical passage the film takes its name from places God as the ultimate taskmaster for seeking vengeance and instructs His followers to meet evil not with the desire to seek retribution, but with a defiant nature of acceptance and goodwill.  The title of Imamura’s film, therefore, appears to be derived from the idea that Enokizu’s actions, whatever his reasons, are completely contrary to the Biblical idea of overcoming evil with good.  The people we see Enokizu kill are not threatening him or engaging in horrible activities, yet they suffer anyway.  Some of his victims are actually kind to him, fulfilling the command to feed your enemies, but are still not spared a senseless death.

I also wonder if Imamura is slyly taking a jab at Christianity by having Enokizu’s father, Shizuo, who had converted years before from Buddhism, adhere to his religious values and refuse the advances of his daughter-in-law Kazuko, the killer’s frustrated wife.  Even though Shizuo’s wife is terminally ill and he shares an attraction to Kazuko, he apparently abstains from that temptation.  His reward is to have his son, who had become ashamed of him at a young age when the father allowed his boats to be taken by the navy without a fight, disgrace the family and disrespect him personally.  

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Throughout the film, Imamura employs a somewhat disjointed and unconventional narrative technique.  He frequently jumps from time and place, putting dates and locations on the screen in the style of a documentary to let the audience know when and where he’s moved the story.  This can be a tad disarming for first-time Western viewers, unfamiliar with Japanese names and geography, who might have difficulty keeping straight the significance of each new location or person.  It doesn’t prove overly distracting though, and it certainly fits the cold, clinical feeling that Imamura seems to want.  This method also is consistent with the director’s larger body of work, since he spent ten years exclusively directing documentaries after one of his other projects proved to be an epic flop. 

Aside from his blending of fiction with fact, Imamura is known for exploring the seedier side of post-war life in Japan.  He had worked with the legendary Yasujiro Ozu as an assistant, but had no interest in the domestic middle-class films the elder director was known for.  Imamura instead chose to make noteworthy films with titles such as Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman, and The Pornographers.  The latter is the only one of his early films, from the era coined the Japanese New Wave, that’s available on DVD in R1 and it’s a bare-bones edition from Criterion.  Theatrical screenings are starting to pop up though, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) cinématek will be having a retrospective of the director’s films during the month of March entitled “Pimps, Prostitutes, and Pigs: Shohei Imamura’s Japan,” including a full week run for Vengeance is Mine

In the land of R2, the Masters of Cinema label gave Vengeance Is Mine an outstanding DVD release in 2005 that certainly built upon their increasingly impressive catalog.  The audio and video are both excellent, but it’s the informative and worthwhile supplements that really set the package apart.  There’s a highly regarded Tony Rayns commentary, a 6-minute introduction from director Alex Cox that mostly skims the surface while pointing out a few things of interest, and, finally, a 36-page booklet (with the startlingly unexpected cover image of a topless woman alongside Ogata) that includes a great, lengthy essay from Jasper Sharp and a much more dry, less rewarding one by Alastair Phillips.  Since Janus Films has the distribution rights to the film in R1, it seems only a matter of time before the Criterion Collection releases its own version, though I hope they also decide to release additional Imamura titles since the MoC disc is put together so well already. 

UPDATE - Criterion will be releasing the film on DVD in May, though the MoC appears to have the advantage in supplements.

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