Little Sister Is Watching You… I START COUNTING Reviewed.

BD. BFI Flipside. Region B. 15

“Terror Grows Like Weeds In The Lollipop World Of Wynne…” (Original trailer).

Coming of age in a suburban backwater, under the heavy, dead hand of the Catholic Church, can be a crushingly dreary affair. Neither I Start Counting (1969) director David Greene, screenwriter Richard Harris nor Audrey Erskine Lindop, author of the original novel, would get any argument out of me on that score. Schoolgirl Wynne Kinch (Jenny Agutter, then 17, playing slightly younger) carries a torch that sustains her through the diurnal dullness of Dalstead (actually Bracknell) New Town. Like Calamity Jane, she nurtures a secret love, specifically a massive crush on her older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall). Something else that “adds colour” (in the words of the film’s sensational publicity copy) to the drudgery of what passes for life in a New Town (not quite the hell hole depicted in the Slits track of that title, but getting there) is “a little blood”. Enter local serial killer (of young women), “The Dalstead Strangler”…

Imaginatively connecting a collection of circumstantial clues, Wynne concludes that George is the culprit and weaves his guilt into her increasingly elabourate fantasies. If anything, this conviction only increases her ardour. She fancies herself the only one who understands George (though in truth she understands precious little and when a measure of comprehension is later forced upon her, she suffers much on account of it), the only one who can protect and ultimately save him.

There’s got to be a good reason for what he’s doing, right? Little Jesuit Jenny even rationalises her shaky moral stance during internal discourses with JC himself.

JA and JC. Morbid religiosity…

As far as the neutral viewer is concerned, George is far from the only contender for Stranglerhood. Winsome Wynn’s other brother, Len (Gregory Phillips) is a budding libertine, dabbling in drugs and secretly salivating over his collection of Dalstead Strangler press clippings… and Simon Ward’s creepy “jack the lad” bus conductor (below) would be handed his P45 (and probably worse) today for the way he “flirts” with Wynne and her precociously provocative school pal Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe, who was actually about 25 when this was shot).

Some might take retroactive offence at the fact that the adventurous Corinne falls victim to the strangler while virginal Wynne survives, but as well trained Catholics, both of them would have known only too well that it’s possible to sin (and reap the wages thereof) in thought, word and deed. Wynne is only virtuous in the sense indicated by Plato and Freud, i.e. content to dream (and she daydreams plenty) about what the wicked actually put into practice. And when she gets sloshed, she attempts to step over that line with the alarmed George, to cringe-inducing effect.

‘”Who you getten, bratty? The Heaven Seventeen? Luke Sterne? Goggly Gogol?”

So, what we got here… the sexual awakening of teenage girls, the murder of teenage girls, a wannabe accessory to murder (after the fact), (kind of) incest… it’s a good job David Greene (whose feature debut was the 1967 Lovecraft effort The Shuttered Room and who later found success in American TV productions) rather than a less tasteful director (and there’s never been any shortage of them) was entrusted with this material which, thus recounted, approximates a random sampling of subject matter from Homeric epics and the Attic Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides… which is, I rather suspect, central to what Greene is trying to say here. Despite the promise of a new start and a new life in a New Town, Wynne and her dysfunctional family are no more free from the ghosts of their past (it’s in what remains of their dilapidated former home that Corinne ultimately contracts her fatal liaison and Wynne has her own encounter with the killer) than any of us are free from the consequences of fallen human nature. As it was in the palace of Agamemnon, so it is in Dalstead / Bracknell’s Point Royal…

… which is pretty much the point that Peter Shaffer and Sidney Lumet were labouring in Equus (1977), another film graced by Agutter’s presence. I Start Counting pitches its tone somewhere between the High Art of that one and the out and out Exploitation of Sidney Hayers’ Assault (1971).

Of course Blaise Pascal took a dissenting view of human history, arguing that it might have followed a completely different course had, e.g. Cleopatra’s nose described an alternative trajectory to the one it actually took. Had that eminent French philosopher lived to witness the cute cut of Ms Agutter’s pert proboscis, I’m certain he would have recast that particular aphorism.

This most captivating of British actresses has given so many splendid performances in so many quality films (see also our appraisals of Walkabout and An American Werewolf in London) that I can’t even bring myself to begrudge her the easy money she’s currently making in the BBC’s awful Call The Midwife. Agutter’s adeptly nuanced turn in I Start Counting (a picture which, with no disrespect intended to the rest of an admirable cast, she effectively carries), delivered at such a tender age, lays down an unmistakable marker for cinematic and stage glories to come (lovingly documented in Ian Taylor’s All Sorts Of Things Might Happen). Kudos, as ever, to the BFI for unearthing and reactivating this lost little gem of a thriller, scanned and restored in 2k from the 35mm interpositive.

Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by Matt Needle

Extras include (alongside the expected trailer and generous image gallery) an audio commentary by Samm Deighan and an interview with Agutter, in which she vividly recalls the film’s making and confesses to being a bit of a compulsive counter herself. In addition you get 40 minutes of writer Richard Harris reflecting on his long running career in cinema and TV and Chris O’Neill’s video essay Loss Of Innocence. The Children’s Film Foundation’s Danger On Dartmoor (1980), directed by David Eady and written by Audrey Erskine Lindop, shares some of the main feature’s thematic concerns and plot devices, as well as warning its audience of the perils inherent in foggy moors and remote natural splendour (subject on which Jenny Agutter would have been eminently well qualified to lecture its protagonists). There’s also a bunch of archive shorts bigging up the New Towns project and the jaw dropping cautionary tale Don’t Be Like Brenda (i.e. pregnant and abandoned)… it’s amazing that they were still making stuff like this in 1973! With the first pressing only comes a fully illustrated collector’s booklet comprising new writing on the film by the BFI’s Jo Botting and its cast and director by Jon Dear. Finally Johnny Trunk (of Trunk Records fame) profiles composer Basil Kirchin and readers of a certain age will remember the 1972 cover of ISC’s main theme by the divine Dusty (who’d already, memorably, closed her eyes and counted to 10).

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Welcome To The Jungles… Jules Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE & THE NAKED CITY Reviewed

BD. Arrow Academy. Region B. 12.

“High heels on wet pavements…” Cons yearn for the women outside in Brute Force.

“Sometimes I think this whole world is made up of nothing but dirty feet!” A weary scrub woman in The Naked City.

Overcrowded Westgate Penitentiary is nominally run by Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen), a weakling who has, in reality, ceded authority to Captain Munsey, a power hungry sadist (played, believe it or not, by Hume Cronyn) delighting in the physical and psychological abuse of its inmates.

The men squeezed into Cell R17, typically enough, divide their daydreams between the women who are (possibly) waiting for them on the outside (or whose conniving put them there in the first place), fantasies of parole… and getting even with Munsey. Dreaming won’t cut it, though, for tough Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster in a truly galvanising performance). “Nothing’s OK… he tells his roomies: “… it never was and it never will be until we’re out! Got that?”

Burt’s determined to see his ailing girl (Ann Blyth) before she dies and pieces together an audacious escape plan that hinges on him and his cell mates being conscripted to the dreaded drainpipe detail. As Munsey minces around in a singlet, attempting to beat the poop on what’s brewing out of a Collins confidant (while Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture blares from his record player!) the jailbreak erupts in an Apocalyptic climax…

It’s instructive to compare and contrast Jules Dassin’s Brute Force with Howard Hawks’ 1930 prison melodrama The Criminal Code, recently reviewed in these pages. In the latter, for example, Boris Karloff’s dispatch of a snitch, in compliance with one interpretation of the phrase “criminal code”, is effectively but suggestively rendered. Dassin’s film, although ostensibly hampered by another code (the one named after Will Hays) depicts one of Munsey’s abandoned pigeons being summarily executed in altogether more, well, brutal fashion (pulverised in workshop machinery), showcases all manner of other incidental nastiness and concludes in riotous scenes of charnel house intensity… how did he get away with it?

You suspect that Dassin’s searing critique of The American Way was too artfully cloaked in allegory for the assorted Watch Committees and Legions of Decency to grasp. Plus (SPOILER ALERT) the aspiring escapees and their supporting cast of rioting cons are violently suppressed. Sure, the big authority figure also gets his well deserved and spectacular comeuppance but (and I’m being ironic here, just in case anybody needs that spelling out) he’s such an obvious fag, he probably had it coming, right? Perhaps the calypso commentary of Sir Lancelot (a familiar figure from those wonderful Val Lewton films) convinced the censorious that what they were watching was a “mere” piece of entertainment. The one thing Dassin couldn’t get away with indefinitely was his brief (terminated by the Hitler / Stalin pact of 1939) membership of the American Communist Party. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

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… before those little red chickens came home to roost, Dassin reassembled his principal Brute Force crew collaborators (Art director John DeCuir, DP William H. Daniels, Miklós Rózsa scoring) for a bravura 180 degree stylistic shift with The Naked City. This one kicks off in classic Noir style, as we view (through the tilted venetian blind slats of her apartment) a blonde being strangled then drowned in her bath tub. Thereafter Dassin eschews elaborate sound stages, within the likes of which the pressure cooker plotting of Brute Force was brought to the boil, in favour of the cityscape of New York itself. I’m not totally convinced by the claim that this film contains no studio set ups at all, but the lion’s share of its (fairly routine) forensic crime storyline unfolds over a hundred Big Apple locations as gently ironic Irish cop Barry Fitzgerald and his Jimmy Stewart-alike rookie sidekick (Don Taylor) pursue their principal person of interest (a harmonica playing wrestler) through its streets, markets, offices, fire escapes, gyms, hairdressers, jewellery stores, lunch counters, building sites, bridges, construction sites, subways, tram cars, offices, wharfs, police precincts, tenement blocks and all the rest of it. NYC is both the film’s story and its main, hyperforceful character (perhaps nothing else could have have followed Lancaster!)

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If Brute Force can be said to have strongly influenced individual films (most obviously Sidney Lumet’s 1965 effort The Hill, with which it would make a splendid double bill), The Naked City’s stylistic innovations exerted enormous influence over the whole crime film genre. Hitchcock, who recognised Dassin’s promise when the latter assisted him on Mr. And Mrs. Smith (1941), clearly owed something to him for Vertigo (1958) and the debt is also apparent in another film from the same year, Don Siegel’s The Lineup, though both of those are (at least in part) hymns to San Francisco rather than NYC.

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Whether the voice over by “colourful” producer / sometime journalist Mark Hellinger enhances or works against Dassin’s design remains debatable. It would be interesting to watch The Naked City with his narration deleted, as Harrison Ford’s eventually was from Blade Runner (1982)

This is Noir shot under the influence of Italian Neorealism rather than German Expressionism and Neorealism, of course, is but a wisp of capellini away from social realism… not to mention (ulp!) Socialist realism. Refusing to rat his friends out before Joe McCarthy’s Senate sub committee, Dassin was blacklisted, becoming persona non grata in Hollywood… which, gratifyingly, didn’t cramp his style one jot. Relocating to Europe, he plied his trade successfully in France (effectively inventing the heist genre with Riffifi, 1955) and Greece (where he married Melina Mercouri).

Melina, I think you're losing your Marbles...
Melina, baby, I think you’re losing your Marbles…

As an added “fuck you” to McCarthy, Dassin returned to Hollywood when red-baiting had abated somewhat and resumed making successful movies (notably Topkapi, another heist effort, in 1964). Like Rocky Graziano, somebody up there must have liked him…

For this limited edition set, both films have been painstakingly (it took two years!) restored in 4k (from miserably conserved elements) by TLE, also recently responsible for that much misunderstood and maligned Suspiria restoration. Both films look and sound marvellous though, in each, visuals and soundtracks aren’t always in perfect synch… not on the discs I watched, anyway.

Brute Force extras include Josh Nelson’s commentary track and a visual essay (“Nothing’s Okay”), courtesy of David Cairns & Fiona Watson. Josh Olson, Oscar winning winning screenwriter on Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) talks about the life-changing impact on him of a youthful exposure to this movie. Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life, takes a look at the star’s Noir-heavy early career. Plus theatrical trailers and image gallery.

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For The Naked City, David Cairns has collaborated on an audio commentary with actors Steven McNicoll and Francesca Dymond, while Eloise Ross kicks in with an original visual essay. New York and The Naked City is an analysis of the film’s influence on subsequent cinematic portrayals of New York, in efforts ranging from the mainstream to indie / underground / avant garde, delivered by Amy Taubin (somebody who “was there”). The Hollywood Ten is a 1950 documentary short arguing the case for free speech and against the blacklisting and imprisonment of 10 filmmakers who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, including The Naked City’s screenwriter Albert Maltz. In a 2004 personal appearance at LA’s County Museum of Art, Dassin (pictured above) proves himself a winning and waspish raconteur, taking time out to compare America post-9/11 with the McCarthy era. Plus trailer and a gallery of production stills by renowned photojournalist Weegee, whose work was so influential on the look of The Naked City.

An illustrated collector’s booklet includes writing on the films by Alastair Philips, Barry Salt, Sergio Angelini, Andrew Graves, Richard Brooks and Frank Krutnik. The reversible sleeve offers the options of featuring original and newly commissioned artwork.

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All The Colours Of Bleakness… Sergio Martino’s SILENT ACTION Reviewed.

… but violent!

BD. Fractured Visions. Region Free. 15.
Buy direct

A succession of Italian military bigwigs die in a series of suspicious “accidents / suicides” (notably a spectacular train decapitation), investigated by feisty femme journalist Maria (Delia Boccardo). Her boyfriend, maverick Police Inspector Giorgio Solmi (Luc Merenda) discovers a connection between these high profile deaths and the case of a man whose brains were apparently beaten out by a call girl at his luxury crib. “I want to know how a whore-mongering electrician can afford to live like an oil sheikh”, straight talking Giorgio tells his assistants. When they rescue the call girl in question (Paola Tedesco) from another staged suicide, an alternative narrative begins to emerge, one of sedition in high places. Solmi shoots from the lip (“Hawking pussy is one business that never goes into recession”), don’t take no shit and can’t be intimidated into dropping his investigation, but the closer he gets to the unbelievable truth, the faster the bodies keep piling up…

Two years on from his seminal The Violent Professionals (Milano Trema: La Polizia Vuole Giustizia, 1973), one of the films that imparted real box office momentum to the Poliziotteschi / Crime Slime band wagon, Sergio Martino amplifies its hints that the criminal and political violence which characterised Italy’s “Years of Lead” were intimately and conspiratorially connected, in Silent Action (La Polizia Accusa: Il Servizio Segreto Uccide). This theme is more frankly handled in the Italian dub / English subtitles, which explicitly allude to preparations for an upcoming right wing coup. The English language version more vaguely references a gun running operation’s connections to Establishment figures. As early as the opening montage, in which career slime criminal Antonio Casale and heavy pals stage the suicides of some inconvenient Generals, Luciano Michelini’s relentlessly staccato minor key march brings to mind Ennio Morricone’s score for Elio Petri’s Investigation Of Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) and suggests that the film you’re about to watch has more in common with that kind of pointed political comment than with any amount of those “guns and gurning” Umberto Lenzi efforts in which Maurizio Merli mercilessly slaps down the scumbags.

Don’t get me wrong, Silent Action emerged from the same Martino family stable as many of those pictures and has no qualms whatsoever about packing in such crowd pleasing exploitation elements as punch ups, shoot outs, double crosses, a swaggering, indecently handsome male lead, judicious helpings of gratuitous female nudity, a prison riot, Rémy Julienne’s car crashes… all very enjoyable, as is the helicopter attack on a paramilitary camp which (though skilfully executed and featuring a memorable micro cameo from director Sergio) could probably have been omitted without any perceivable damage to the narrative.

It does, however evidence levels of sophistication and pessimism inaccessible to a director like Lenzi who, by his own contention, was weaned on the films of Edgar Ulmer, Robert Siodmak and Raoul Walsh. Martino’s message is summarised, at the conclusion of Eugenio Ercolani’s impressive supplementary featurette, The Age of Lead – 1970s Italy, as: “American films are very concentrated on defending a system, a way of life. Terrible things might happen but eventually things work out, the system still works whereas in Italian cinema it’s about the system not existing, it’s not really there. It’s just a hologram, an illusion… we don’t really know what’s happening to us. There are powers we can’t even grasp and ultimately even a police officer, a Commissario or whatever, is just a victim, as are all Italians. That’s really the difference between Italian and American films. We’re not defending anything. It’s all darkness, all bleak”.

Gorgeously remastered in 2K (Giancarlo Ferrando’s crisp cinematography has never looked better) and representing a world BD debut to boot, this nicely packaged 2 disc set (you get Michelini’s OST as a bonus CD) is limited to 3,000 units and comes armed to the teeth with nifty extras. In addition to Ercolani’s documentary, you get interviews with Martino and Michelini (each socially distanced in a public spaces) plus two conversations (one archival and another more recent one) with Luc Merenda… wow, what a silver fox he’s turned into! During all of these anecdote rich interviews, much is made of how the film makers had to pussy foot around Tomas Milian, who appears in a pivotal albeit very brief role (said brevity just as well, perhaps, given the career worst haircut somebody has inflicted on him here).

Tomas’s fragile ego is further dissected in archival featurette The Milian Connection. In a special collector’s booklet there are essays by Ercolani (elaborating the argument of his documentary) and Francesco Massaccesi, assessing Mel Ferrer’s career in Italy (like Milian, Ferrer appears only briefly in the film as Solmi’s superior, a suave, detached and deeply ambiguous character). I’ve left the best till last. The audio commentary from “tough-guy film expert” Mike Malloy (director of Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The ’70s) touches lightly on the actual feature, focussing instead on personal reminiscences of growing up fanboy and as such, will strike some serious chords with the target audience. It’s witty and engaging stuff, one of the most enjoyable commentary tracks I’ve heard in a long time… so much so, I can even bring myself to forgive Mr Malloy for his self-declared indifference towards gialli!

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A Bloodstained Walk In Nat Cohen’s Shoes… HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM Reviewed.

DVD. Network. Region 2. 15.

“Making films is no different from the manufacture of shoes or any other product…” opined larger than life British film mogul Nat Cohen (1905-88): “My job is to entertain the public… I have to remember they have other means of entertainment and a limited amount of money. Films are a pure gamble and I always try to bet with the odds in my favour.” In other words, give the public what they want… and what they wanted on the cusp of the 1950s and ’60s was, by Cohen’s reckoning, the kind of salacious thrills conveyed (and ultimately critiqued) in what came to be known as Anglo-Amalgamated’s “Sadean trilogy”, comprising Sidney Hayer’s hysterical Circus Of Horrors, Michael Powell’s harrowing Peeping Tom (both 1960) and, from the previous year, the astonishing artefact under consideration here, one of the earliest CinemaScope efforts to emerge from Merton Park Studios.

Cohen’s populist philosophy is effortlessly embodied in Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors Of The Black Museum. Crabtree had proved his aptitude for such material with those slimy, stop-motion brain invaders in Fiend Without A Face (1958). Writers Aben Kandel and Herman Cohen had recently penned (and the latter also produced) I was A Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957) and How To Make A Monster (1958). For their male lead, Cohen and Crabtree were gifted Michael Gough, an actor who wouldn’t be out of place in any of the Universal horror classics, the kind of trouper who never played any of his roles as though they were beneath his dignity and performed with as much conviction in e.g. Freddie Francis’ They Came From Beyond Space (1967) as he did in the Ralph Richardson / Vivien Leigh Anna Karenina (1948).

HOTBM opens with a pair of opera glasses being delivered to a young woman, presumably courtesy of some mystery admirer. Way to a woman’s heart, eh? In fact it turns out to be the way to her brain via her eyeballs… no doubt Giannetto De Rossi would have rendered this opening murder way more explicitly but the bloodied spikes protruding from the binoculars after their victim has dropped them on the floor tell us all we need to know. Before you can say “Un Chien Andalou”, before the viewer has had a chance to digest the semiotic significance of this orb-shattering demise, yellow journalist Edmond Bancroft (Gough) is visiting Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) and Inspector Lodge (John Warwick) at Scotland Yard to hector them about their tardiness in cracking a series of grisly killings, of which this is merely the latest, based on gory exhibits in The Yard’s famed “Black Museum”. The cops question his journalistic ethics but he counters, in a warped reflection of Nat Cohen’s own philosophy: “I don’t enjoy being sordid, but they pay me a great deal of money to write about crime.” That’s not the whole truth about Bancroft, though. In fact he curates his own private Black Museum (superior to The Yard’s, in his own smirking estimation) and despite the handicap of a gammy leg, it’s actually he who’s responsible for the crop of outlandishly contrived killings, which are carried out by his long suffering, hypnotised side-kick Rick (Graham Curnow)… try and imagine a tawdry, sexed-up remake of Robert Wien’s The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and you’ll get the gist.

While Bancroft is not above electrocuting interfering medics when they’re unwise enough to stand between the poles of a handy electrocuting device in his Black Museum, nor choking little old ladies with pincers when they’re reckless enough to turn their backs on him after threatening blackmail, his favoured modus operandi affords him the pleasure of taunting the police, provides material for his sensational books and newspaper columns and also allows him to settle personal scores, e.g. with the mistress Joan (June Cunningham) who had mocked and dumped him. As a sequel to her mean treatment of Bancroft we find her dancing a risible mambo routine in a pub and swearing that she’s going to live life to the full from now on, only to return home and (ooh, the irony) not notice that Rick has constructed an ingenious guillotine at the head of her bed. Those who see the culprit running away with her severed noggin in a sports bag report that he was a hideous old man “… with the strength and speed of the unholy!” The confusion into which this aspect of the case throws the police is echoed by a similar device that was excised from the original draft screenplay of Lucio Fulci’s 1982 giallo The New York Ripper (which copped a pretty Sadean rep of its own), only to turn up in Ruggero Deodato’s Off Balance / Phantom Of Death (1988). In Horrors Of The Black Museum it begs two burning questions… 1) Why does being hypnotised make Rick look like an old man? 2) Why is having shit rubbed all over somebody’s face supposed to make them look like an old man?

A boring dude explains Hypnovista. Yesterday.

Crabtree has such a jolly time with thie mesmerism motif, it was even suggested in the film’s marketing that it would be “presented in Hypnovista”, a mysterious film making process that never caught on in quite the same way as, e.g. Ray Harryhausen’s SuperDynaMation. I’m not quite sure how this cinematic boon was conveyed on the film’s original release (when I was otherwise engaged, sucking down my momma’s milk) but I imagine the boring documentary short included on Network’s DVD release, in which an annoying know-all blathers interminably about the mysteries of mesmerism, was run as a support film. However HOTBM subjects its viewers to Hypnovista, I can’t honestly say that I entertained any overpowering urges after watching it, other than eminently predictable ones ocasioned by the always agreeable spectacle of Shirley Anne Field.

The only time we see Bancroft actually administering his hypnotic drug to poor Rick, he also delivers a pep talk that includes the hackneyed line “one day, all this will be yours”… “all this” being The Black Museum and his academic papers. Tempting as this prospect no doubt is, you can see why a red blooded young dude like Rick might well prefer the perky breasted charms of Angela Banks (Ms Field) but unfortunately Bancroft, wanting to eliminate this distracting influence over his protege, programs him to stab her at a fun fair (well, that’ll certainly conclude things in discreet fashion!)

Sure enough, the dastardly deed done, Rick scales a ferris wheel and starts remonstrating with the watching Bancroft that he’s carried out his orders. The cops are understandably interested in the contents of his confession, while an increasingly agitated Bancroft urges them to “Shoot him! What are you waiting for? He’s a maniac!” Hm, bit of a giveaway, there. Rick punctuates his invective by hurling himself from the wheel and plunging a dagger into Bancroft’s chest. Rolling him over to reveal that the shitface / hypnotic effect is terminated, the police announce the case of “the monster murderer” closed and the excited crowd that had gathered breaks up, as the credits roll, to wander around the fairground looking for new spectacles to distract them from the never ending encroachment of ennui…

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THE CRIMINAL CODE BD Limited Edition. Indicator. Region B. PG. World blu-ray premiere.
TWENTIETH CENTURY. BD Limited Edition. Indicator. Region B. U. World blu-ray premiere.

Peter Bogdanovich, in the bonus materials for the release of Twentieth Century under consideration here, argues convincingly that its director introduced many of the cinematic innovations subsequently credited to Orson Welles. Though recognised by the cognoscenti, his peers and many of the significant artists who followed him (try shutting John Carpenter up on this subject), Howard Winchester Hawks received scant acknowledgement from the Hollywood Establishment during his lifetime. He was nominated for the “best director” Oscar only once and had to wait until 1974 for an honorary Academy Award. Disrespect had dogged him since early days… he doesn’t even get a director’s credit (!) on The Criminal Code, the first picture he made (in 1930) for Columbia.

A guy could get old waiting for his Oscar
Flapper contemplates murder weapon…

In this adaptation of Martin Flavin’s stage melodrama, young Robert Graham (the ill-fated Phillips Holmes) is interrogated by D.A. Mark Brady (Walter Huston) after accidentally killing a man who initiated a stupid bar room brawl. Brady recognises the mitigating factors in the case and has empathy for the plight of a young man whose life is about to go pointlessly down the tubes (with the aid of an inept defence attorney), but successfully prosecutes him anyway. Brady’s an exemplary professional, his motto: “The criminal code is my Bible!” Six years working in a prison jute mill (I never realised that jute mills were such bad places!) have brought Graham to breaking point by the time Brady turns up as the new Warden of the joint in which he’s incarcerated. Laying down a marker, Brady goes into the exercise yard, alone and unarmed (I bet the trigger fingers of the machine gun toting guards on the walls were twitching away, though) and faces down a crowd of angry men whom he put there (nor does he hesitate to employ a cut throat murderer as his personal barber). He’s hard as nails but there’s a tacit admission from the cons that he’s scrupulously fair as well.

Brady doesn’t even remember Graham (he has, after all, sent so many men down) but, out of plain decency, plucks him from that jute mill to work as a valet to himself and his daughter Mary (Constance Cummings, in her screen debut). Graham rediscovers his humanity while falling in love with Mary, but when he witnesses cell mate Ned Galloway (Boris Karloff) silencing a stool pigeon, his adherence to the the inmates’ parallel criminal code puts him in the frame and his dreams of redemption in jeapourdy…

Karloff’s small but crucial role was played with sufficient conviction to persuade James Whale that he had found his Frankenstein (1931) Monster.

I’m unaware if Whale ever saw Hawks’ sophomore Columbia outing, Twentieth Century (1934) but if he did, it’s safe to say that John Barrymore’s performance would have left an indelible impression on him. Sending himself up so high he’s nearly in orbit (even defacing, in the process, his “great profile”), rattling out Ben Hecht’s witty lines like machine gun bullets and generally chewing the scenery, Barrymore plays theatrical impressario Oscar Jaffe, whose greatest triumphs overlapped his partnership with his very own Trilby, Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). Now they’re professionally and romantically sundered, she’s very much the snotty star and he’s down on his uppers when their paths cross again aboard the locomotive known as The Twentieth Century. Jaffe goes full tilt at the reconciliation he protests he doesn’t want, nor can Lily resist the magnetism of the Svengali who formed her from the unpromising raw material of Mildred Plotka. Possibly the most fascinating thing about Twentieth Century is the way that the early scenes in which Jaffe bullies / seduces Mildred into becoming the actress she could be (“The diamond was there, I merely applied a little polish”) mirror the job that Barrymore (and Hawks) did on the initially stiff Lombard (or Jane Alice Peters, as she had been born). If this seems like an unreconstructured patriarchal take on what happened during the making of Twentieth Century, it’s the account to which Lombard herself consistently adhered.

By the time the journey ends, Jaffe and Garland have had about enough of each other but remain inextricably connected, while the viewer can heave a sigh of relief and walk away from the wreckage. This film’s title ostensibly refers to a train but it’s obviously a comment on the Century of Celebrity (or what must have seemed like it at the time… God knows what Hawks and his stalwart screenwriter, Hecht would make of the first quarter of the Century that followed).

Stacked against The Criminal Code, Twentieth Century (one of the seminal works of what became Screwball Comedy) illustrates the sheer versatility of Howard Hawks, consummate story teller and character developer, who stamped his signature on everything he ever made. After watching these two, I was trying to work out from which director Hawks pinched the device of wise-cracking subsidiary characters commenting on the unfolding action… until the penny dropped that it’s straight out of Shakespeare. Nice company to keep, if you can keep up…

Extras wise, The Criminal Code boasts Nora Fiore’s audio commentary, a Kim Newman featurette on Karloff’s non-Horror credits and a new video essay by Jonathan Bygraves on the numerous adaptations of Marvin Flavin’s original play. Speak of the devil, here’s the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of it starring Edward G Robinson, Beverly Roberts and Paul Guilfoyle. “The Howard Hawks Masterclass with John Carpenter” is an archival audio recording of that director’s presentation at the NFT’s Hawks retrospective in 1997. It suffers somewhat from the non-visibilty of the clips to which JC refers but come on, people, use your imaginations. The expected image galleries include on-set and promotional photography from not only Hawks’ The Criminal Code but also the lost Spanish-language version, El Código Penal, which was shot simultaneously. The 36-page collectors’ booklet in this one comprises a new essay by Philip Kemp, Hawks own comments on The Criminal Code, an archival feature on the director by Henri Langlois, contemporary critical responses and full film credits.

Twentieth Century (which has been restored in 4K) comes with an audio commentary from Farran Smith Nehme, the aforementioned short big up for the film from Peter Bogdanovich and Lucy Bolton’s appreciation of Carole Lombard. You get another radio presentation, courtesy of The Campbell Playhouse and starring Orson Welles alongside Elissa Landi, also a condensed (not by Campbells, unfortunately) Super 8 version. There’s a trailer put together for the film’s presentation at the Austin Film Society in 2016 and an image gallery of on-set and promotional photography. The (32 page) booklet includes a new essay by Pamela Hutchinson, Howard Hawks’ thoughts on the film, contemporary crits and full film credits.

Constance Cummings, Screen Goddess.

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Try Eine Kleine Tenderness… MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM Reviewed.

BD / DVD. BFI. Regions B/2. PG.

“You may forget but let me tell you this, someone in some future time will think of us… ” Sappho (620-570 bc), from The Art Of Loving Women.

Mädchen in Uniform could easily have been dreamed up by The Poetess herself, on the original Love Island of Lesbos and its themes would fit comfortably into a movie released in 2021 (though one doubts that any such picture could be anything like as compelling). In fact it dates back 90 years to the fertile flux of the Weimar Republic, when Germany was teaching Hitchcock, Hollywood and everybody else how to make films…

Having recently lost her mother, 14 year old Manuela von Meinhardis (Hertah Thiele) is deposited by her Aunt in a strict girls’ boarding school, an establishment dedicated to grinding out compliant wives for Prussia’s ruling military caste. She gets a pretty friendly welcome from her new dormitory mates, who warn her against a) climbing the imposing central staircase and b) falling in love with Frau von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), the beautiful, kindly teacher on whom they’ve developed a massive collective crush. Troubled Manuela thrives under the nurturing care of von Bernburg (whose goodnight kisses seem to suggest a particular fondness for her) and she’s ecstatic when the teacher gifts her one of her undergarments. After a successful school production of Schiller’s Don Carlos, plenty of punch having been consumed, Manuela tipsily and loudly declares her great love and her belief that it’s reciprocated. Unfortunately this is overheard by one of the crusty old staff members, who relays news of it to the formidable Principal (Emilia Unda). She carpets von Bernberg, who accepts the inevitability of resignation but protests: “What you call Sin, I call the great spirit of Love, which takes a thousand forms”. Devastated, Manuela climbs that staircase with the intention of jumping from the top…

This enchanting film was adapted from Christa Winslow’s autobiographical stage play Gestern Und Heute (“Yesterday And Today”), its cast mostly made up of actors (notably Thiele) who had already trodden the boards performing it. With audition and rehearsal time thus minimised, it was (astonishingly) shot over a period scarcely exceeding three weeks and co-operatively funded. Predictably, most of its participants / investors went empty handed as the film’s popularity took off around the world. You’ll scour the (all female) cast in vain for a bad performance but undoubtedly much of that international success was down to the onscreen chemistry between Wieck (for whom Hitler himself reportedly had the hots) and Thiele. Offscreen, these actresses (who were actually both 23 when the film was shot) didn’t get on so well. The appeal of Thiele’s performance, all soulful eyes and heart convincingly worn on her sleeve, is patently obvious but it’s Wieck’s von Bernburg who becomes the cynosure of our fascinated attention. In a milieu of suppressed (to the point of hysteria) homoeroticism, we can only speculate on where she personally draws the demarcation lines between duty, compassion and passion. Although the film never descends into exploitive prurience, vB’s attempts to discourage her young admirers are so weedy, they’re tantamount to encouraging an itch that can never legitimately be scratched and (as Sappho also said): “What cannot be said will be wept”.

Dorothea Wieck

Mädchen in Uniform takes the commonplace Sturm und Drang of unfulfilled romantic yearning and inserts it into a pivotal historical moment, when Germany had a choice (much like the one facing us today) between renewed nationalism and militarism and a more humane, open and inclusive society… and took a wrong turn. The arch humanist Schiller seems to be an odd choice for a performance in Emilia Unda’s authoritarian establishment, which in real life was the Potsdam Military Orphanage, founded by Frederick The Great (and came with oodles of inbuilt atmosphere, plus the requisite staircase) but how better to illustrate the conflicting tendencies nestling cheek by jowl in the German psyche? The symbolism of the stern old headmistress slinking away into the shadows is clear enough (“a better world is possible”) but we we all know how things actually turned out and the girls stripy uniforms would be given an unfortunate unintended retrospective resonance within a decade. In reality the makers of this film had no more chance of influencing the catastrophic events that were about to unfold than Sappho and her students had of averting the rise of the Tyrants, the Persian incursions or the Peloponnesian War…

… ah yes, the makers of this film. Here lies the rub for those who have championed Mädchen In Uniform as a clarion call for inclusivity and acceptance while cheerfully writing its co-director Carl Froelich (and his male assistants) out of the story. Bibi Berki’s podcast series, pointedly entitled The Kiss – The Women Who Made A Movie Masterpiece (several episodes of which are included among the bonus materials here) does mention Froelich but wastes no time demoting him from co-director to producer (contradicting Thiele’s own reminiscences) and seeming to suggest that he wanted to turn the film into something a bit saucier (as though there’s some kind of link between it and Wolf C. Hartwig’s titillating Schulmädchen-Report series from the 1970s). While this might fit Berki’s feminist take on MIU, there’s little in Froelich’s subsequent filmography to lend the notion any credence. Similarly, when we peruse the further screen-directing credits of the other credited (and Berki’s favoured) director, Leontine Sagan, we find that she made just two more films and on each she worked with a co-director (each of whom happened to be a man). However this gels or fails to gel with Berki’s grand theory, the weight of the evidence suggests that Sagan and Froelich directed the film together, that she predominantly directed the players and he was mostly concerned with the film’s technical aspects… a collaboration which worked splendidly. Is Froelich dismissed because of his gender or did he become infra dig because he later threw in his film making lot with Goebbels? Worth remembering that Sagan herself wasn’t exactly beyond reproach in this context, concluding her theatrical career in Apartheid-era South Africa.

Lest we forget…

I’ve no room or inclination here to pursue arguments about Exceptionalism and “separating the Art from The Artist”. Suffice to say, if you can manage that separation, Mädchen In Uniform emerges as, obviously, “a milestone in Queer Cinema” but more than that, as an exquisitely beautiful film. There are times when the jaded hack has to lay aside their trusty critical tools and the only possible reaction to the film he (or she) is watching is to swoon! Does that make me sound like a big girl’s blouse? If you don’t get it, then I take it you’ve never enjoyed / endured the raptures / miseries attendant on remotely adoring another human being… for which you have my sincerest commiserations / congratulations.

Other supplementary materials include an audio commentary by film historian Jenni Olson, Chrystel Oloukoï’s video essay Women and Sexuality in Weimar Cinema and “a selection of treasures from the BFI National Archive to charm and delight”, a nifty collection of shorts comprising Tilly And The Fire Engines (1911), Hints And Hobbies No.11: Hints To The Ladies On Jiu-Jitsu (1926), Day At St. Christopher’s College And School (c. 1920s) and 4 And 20 Fit Girls (1940)… anyone who forks out for Mädchen In Uniform in the misguided hope of onanistic accompaniment will find the latter as bemusing as he finds the main feature. The first pressing only comes with an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by So Mayer, Chrystel Oloukoï, Bibi Berki, Henry K Miller and Sarah Wood.

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Draconian Daze… SHOGUN’S JOY OF TORTURE Reviewed.

BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.

From Toei studios and director Teruo Ishii, the guys who brought you (among countless others) the 1969 brace Horrors Of Malformed Men and Orgies Of Edo, comes this portmanteau survey of draconian judicial misogyny during Japan’s Edo / Tokugawa period (1603-1868). After a random pre-titles sampling of decapitation, evisceration, immolation and the ol’ “torn apart by rampaging bulls” chestnut, we’re into the first of three stories, that of lovely Mitsu (Masumi Tachibana). When her brother Shinzo (Teruo Yoshida) is seriously injured at work, she faces the prospect of destitution and accepts an offer from his big shot boss Minosuke (Kurosawa regular Kichijirõ Ueda) to finance the required medical treatment. Mean Mister Mino’s motivation is not at all altruistic, however and the only way for Mitsu to keep the funds flowing is to succumb to his sexual advances. When Shinzo learns what is happening, he’s so incensed by the blot on Mitsu’s honour that he initiates an incestuous relationship with her… I’m not entirely convinced of the logic behind this, but at least it suggests that Shinzo is recovering his strength. Ultimately Shinzo calls Minosuke out on his sexual blackmail, Mino exposes the incest and Mitsu injures him with a knife. Suspended and beaten until she confesses, Mitsu is brought to trial before an enlightened magistrate (also played by Yoshida) who tries to exercise clemency but she won’t renounce her forbidden love, hoping to be reunited with her dead brother / lover in Heaven. Unrepentant, she is crucified upside down over an incoming tide. The incest taboo is a basic tenet of any civilised society but Mitsu’s punishment is surely excessive, especially as Minosuke (who, it’s revealed, arranged Shinzo’s incapacitating injury) seems to get off scot free!

Cut to the linking device, in which a scholar peruses the annals of Edo period jurisprudence. All the events in this 1968 film (original title Tokugawa Onna Keibatsu-Shi / Tokugawa History Of Women Punishment) are allegedly based on authenticated historical occurrences, with the second story specifically concerning the notorious goings on at Juko Temple in 1666. Abbess Reihō (Yukie Kagawa) presides sternly over her Buddhist nuns but is secretly bedding her attendant Rintoku (Naomi Shiraishi). When they stumble upon one of their charges romping in the woods with Syunkai (Shin’ichirô Hayashi), an inhabitant of the neighbouring monastery, the Abbess is simultaneously outraged and aroused. The guilty nun is suspended and beaten, then bitten by leeches, followed by the application of chillis and ultimately a red hot poker to places where the sun don’t shine! Predictably these drastic measures, intended to transfer Syunkai’s affections to Reihō, have precisely the opposite effect. When the Shogun’s men turn up to investigate the reports they’ve been getting, they find the abbess carrying his severed head around with her. Reihō and her principal collaborators are crucified and stabbed with spears. That compassionate magistrate asks presiding magistrate Lord Nanbara if they aren’t going too far by executing the dead and the insane…

… to no avail. Nanbara (Fumio Watanabe) is a connoisseur of cruelty and in the concluding episode (whose thematic concerns anticipate those of Pupi Avati’s 1976 masterpiece The House With Laughing Windows) we find him sneering at the alleged masterpiece of famous tattoo artist Horichi (Asao Koike) when he sees it adorning the back of a top Geisha girl. He scoffs at its depiction of tormented souls in Hell for its lack of authenticity. Obsessed with perfecting his Art, Horichi scours the bath houses until he finds a woman with perfect skin and kidnaps her to provide the canvas for his next attempt. “After I’d tattooed her private parts, she became compliant and obedient” he muses (advising the new canvas to “think of it as though you were bitten by a mad dog”). He bugs Nanbara to allow him to attend the torture of captured Christian missionaries while he works and his request is granted.

“I would even go to Hell for the work I want to achieve…” rants Horichi: “… it will be the pinnacle of my life’s work!” Deciding that only Nanbara’s face is appropriate for the ogre in his new tableau, Horichi sets about giving his Lordship a sufficiently agonised expression, so at least the film ends on a note of poetic justice (recalling that in the contemporary Amicus portmanteaus efforts). This and stern voice over reminders that the only reason we’re seeing all these horrors is to illustrate man’s inhumanity to woman and as a warning against the consequences of draconian legal codes didn’t cut any ice with the Japanese critical establishment, which roundly condemned Tokugawa Onna Keibatsu-Shi. In its undeclared aim of dragging potential Japanese cinema ticket buyers away from their beloved TV sets, however, it proved wildly successful, spawning a series of official and bootleg sequels plus any amount of increasingly icky “eco-guru” efforts claiming inspiration from it. Unlike most of those, Ishii’s film is skilfully made (drawing its look from medieval Buddhist Hell Scrolls and the S/M visions of Oniroku Dan) and particularly beautifully shot by Motoya Washio…. and all the more disturbing for it. To help keep you glued to your own beloved TV set, the folks at Arrow have appended the following…

Extras: Audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, an appreciation from author Patrick Macias of Teruo Ishii’s career and Jasper Sharp on the wider depiction of torture for titillation in Japanese exploitation cinema, an informative featurette that will prevent you from ever suffering the social faux pas of confusing Pinky Violence with Roman Porno. Also trailer, image gallery and reversible sleeve options (original / Jacob Phillips’s newly commissioned artwork). The first pressing only comes with a collectors’ booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Mark Schilling.

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All The Colours Of Chiaroscuro… Indicator’s COLUMBIA NOIR #2 Box Set Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. PG.
Limited Edition (6,000 units)

FRAMED (Richard Wallace, 1947) UK BD Premiere
711 OCEAN DRIVE (Joseph M Newman, 1950) UK BD Premiere
THE MOB (Robert Parrish, 1951) World BD Premiere
AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (Vincent Sherman, 1952) UK BD Premiere
TIGHT SPOT (Phil Karlson, 1955) World BD Premiere
MURDER BY CONTRACT (Irving Lerner, 1958) World BD Premiere

Following hard on the shit heels (*) of Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 set, what we have here (predictably enough but no less welcome for that) is another six disc sampling of deadpan dicks, duplicitous dames, deadly frames, double crosses, crime bosses, relative morality and all the rest of it. So don your trench coat, light up a Lucky Strike, set your venetian blinds to maximum Expressionist effect and let’s check out the lineup…

(* “Shit heel”: pulp fictional variant on the term “gum shoe”, denoting a private investigator… but you knew that, right?)

Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford) makes one hell of an entrance in Richard Wallace’s Framed (aka Paula, 1947), the brakes on a crappy lorry supplied to him by his stop gap employers having failed. If he looks more like a mining engineer than a truck driver that’s because he is a mining engineer, looking for an opportunity to ply his trade. As luck would have it, old prospector Jeff Cunningham (Edgar Buchanan) is looking for a mining engineer to help him work a new seam of silver he’s just discovered. Just to make it unanimous, blonde bombshell Paula Craig (Janis Carter) is looking for a sap whose charred remains will pass for those of her smoothy boyfriend Steve Price (Barry Sullivan) after they’ve cleaned out the Savings & Loans where Steve works. Lambert’s exactly what she’s been looking for and although he wonders what such a swell broad is doing behind the bar in a shabby drinking dive (Jeez, this burg could do with a decent careers office!) he’s too dazzled by her alleged beauty to join up the dots. But can Paula follow through with the plan when she starts falling for Mike? And could he stand to see an innocent man take the fall for her ? It’s taken as read that Ford is irresistible to the opposite sex but there are plenty of other plot contrivances (courtesy of Ben Maddow, who adapted John Patrick’s original story to the screen) that will require you to spend your disbelief from a great height… if you can manage that, you’ll enjoy Framed just fine.

Gorgeous Glenn’s back (as Steve Emery) in Vincent Sherman’s Affair In Trinidad (1952) but he’s barely off the plane before he’s walked into another frame-up. The brother he came to visit has “committed suicide” and Chris, the sister-in-law he never knew he had (Rita Hayworth, previously romantically teamed with Ford in Charles Vidor’s The Lady In Question, 1940, Gilda, 1946 and The Loves of Carmen, 1948) hasn’t allowed so much as a respectful interlude to pass before she’s cozying up to smarmy socialite Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby). Steve’s a much brusquer fella than Mike Lambert was and responds to this breach of etiquette by handing Chris a slap.

What she’s not allowed to tell him, unfortunately, is that she’s been working undercover for the cops to dig up dirt on Fabian and his connections with sinister foreign agents (though every so often she takes time out of from this important mission to perform a sexy song and dance routine). Nor does Chris feel at liberty to convey to Steve (you guessed) her growing feelings for him. No prizes for guessing that all these romantic complications are ultimately resolved along with that sinister foreign agents’ fiendish plot… which turns out to be an alarming anticipation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a full decade before it actually unfolded!

Edmond O’Brien’s Noir star eclipses even that of Ford, given his appearances in the likes of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. and (alongside Jimmy Cagney) Raoul Walsh’s astonishing White Heat (both 1949). In Joseph M Newman’s gripping 711 Ocean Drive (1950) his character Mal Granger makes the transition, via his telecommunication skills, from a working stiff who enjoys placing an illegal bet here and there to a big wheel in a horse racing racket. His story, told in flashback by a member of Uncle Sam’s “Gangster Squad”, demonstrates in no uncertain terms the slippery slope that inexorably led him from minor peccadilloes to brutal amorality and begins with a caption claiming that the actors and crew needed police protection from gangland elements intent on disrupting this film’s shoot. That must have taken some doing during the dramatic Boulder Dam finale (a sequence worthy of Hitchcock) where Mal finally succumbs to his fatal character flaw, a fondness for a rival mobster’s woman. Femmes fatales inevitably spell doom for would be wise guys, a motif we see again and again in annals of Noir and elsewhere on this box set.

There’s crime film Royalty (Ford, O’Brien et al) and then there’s Edward G. Robinson… from chewing the scenery as Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) to pursuing a dodgy insurance claim with proto-Columbo doggedness in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Robinson’s impact on this genre has probably only ever been surpassed by that of Cagney himself. In Phil Karlson’s Tight Spot (1955) he’s District Attorney Lloyd Hallett, trying to convince flibbertigibbet jailbird Sherry Conley (Ginger Rogers) to take the stand against Benjamin Costaine (Lorne Greene) her Mr Big former boyfriend… all this based, by some accounts, on Senator Estes Kefauver’s efforts to secure Virginia Hill’s testimony against her mob associates. Sherry’s going to take a lot of convincing, given the recent heavy lead intake of other prospective witnesses. Maybe the romantic attentions of her protection detail Vince Striker (Brian Keith, living up to that hunky handle) will prevail where the DA’s civic duty lectures failed? But Vince is concealing a thing or two himself… Proving (as if their wasn’t abundant other proof on her resume) that she wasn’t “just” Hollywood’s greatest female Hoofer, Rogers steals the show here with a sassy, spirited screwball performance.

Johnny Damico: he uncovers the waterfront…

Robert Parrish’s compelling The Mob (1951) begins with off duty cop Johnny Damico (Broderick Crawford) trying to buy a wedding ring for his girl when he stumbles onto a crime scene and makes a complete hash of it, allowing a murderer posing as another cop to get away scot free. Johnny’s suspended from the force, only to be secretly deployed (under a new alias) on NYC’s docks, to gather info on gangland interests in that crucial economic sector. Mean streets, mean docks… Johnny can’t trust anyone, the existential angst and all pervading paranoia hitting Philip K. Dicklike levels when the Mob hires Johnny to carry out a hit on himself! The ultimate revelation of the big cheese’s identity is kind of “corny” (to quote the character himself) but the suspenseful, hospital based climax concludes things in satisfying style. There’s a great supporting cast in this one, including up-and-comers Ernest Borgnine and Neville Brand… Charles Bronson (who gets a couple of lines but no screen credit)… and Jean Alexander (no, not THAT Jean Alexander!) The Mob and Affair in Trinidad were both shot by multiple Oscar nominee Joseph Walker. Two time Academy Award winner (for From Here To Eternity, 1953 and Bonnie And Clyde (1967) Burnett Guffey served as Cinematographer on Framed, Tight Spot and Joseph H. Lewis’s The Undercover Man (1949) and perusal of their collected work across existing and pending Columbia boxes (which also highlight the OST contributions of George Dunning) provide useful insights into the essence (which had always been more about a vibe than an adherence to any hard and fast rules) of High Noir…

By 1958 the movement was dissolving in waves of cross-genre contamination and few films illustrate this tendency better than Irving Lerner’s Murder By Contract (1958). Vince Edwards plays Claude, an upwardly mobile dude who covets a des res and calmly figures that the quickest way to accumulate the necessary readies is to become a hit man. We follow his monastic preparation and rapid rise through the ranks, until he is flown to LA to rub out a heavily guarded witness on the eve of a major trial. His Zen-like approach to the job winds up Marc (Phillip Pine) and amuses George (Herschel Bernardi) but Claude, who has flipped from taciturnity to rambling expositions of his Nietzschean personal philosophy, completely loses his cool when he learns that his target is a woman. He rationalises his reservations along “deadlier than the male” lines but when obliged to see the job through, he bungles it via apparently Oedipal apprehensions and (spoiler alert!) dies in a drain. Memorable for a nifty jazz guitar accompaniment (courtesy of Bing Crosby’s long time musical director, Perry Botkin) and a firm favourite of Martin Scorsese, Murder By Contract is nicely posed on the cusps of Noir and Nouvelle Vague, anticipating much American “underground” Cinema of the 1960s with its satire on the American business ethic and the blunt black comedic edge to its violence…

… speaking of which, Indicator continue the admirable practice here of beefing up their Columbia boxes with Three Stooges mayhem… and that’s got to be better than a poke in the eye. Each disc contains a Stooges short, selected for some affinity to the film it supports. Violent Is the Word for Curly (1938), for instance, affords an early DP credit to the prolific Lucien Ballard, who later shot Murder by Contract. Nor is it too hard to work out the thematic pertinence of Three Sappy People, Saved by the Belle (both 1939), Idiots Deluxe (1945), Up in Daisy’s Penthouse (1953) and Hot Stuff (1956) to their respective main features. Any chance, I wonder, of a Stooges box (or series of boxes) from Indicator?

While we’re waiting and hoping for that, let’s consider the other extras on this set. Alongside the expected trailers and image galleries, audio commentaries come courtesy of Imogen Sara Smith, Glenn Kenny, Gina Telaroli, Lee Gambin, Nora Fiore and Farran Smith Nehme. The Steps of Age is a short 1951 docudrama written and directed by Framed writer Ben Maddow, depicting the challenges of ageing through of the eyes of a retired widow. Joseph M Newman’s 1945 short Diary of a Sergeant tells the story of Harold Russell, a soldier who lost his hands during World War II and subsequently won an Oscar for his performance in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). You get two interviews with Ernest Borgnine and one in which Peter Ford discusses the life and career of his father Glenn. Caribbean (1951) is a Crown Film Unit short depicting life and culture in the West Indies, British Guiana, and British Honduras. Irving Lerner’s Oscar-nominated Swedes In America (1943), presented by Ingrid Bergman, concerns the life of… well, work it out for yourself. Martin Scorsese contributes an enthusiastic review to Murder By Contract. If you enjoyed the excerpts from Joe Valachi’s Senate subcommittee testimony on Indicator’s recent release of The Valachi Papers, no doubt you’ll appreciate (on the Tight Spot disc) an hour or so’s worth of extracts from unedited telerecordings of another (1951) Senate hearing into organised crime, originally compiled by the British Film Institute and presented in four parts, including footage of the aforementioned Virginia Hill. Limited edition includes a 120 page book.

Like its predecessor, this box showcases many different aspects of the multi-faceted Film Noir phenomenon… and box 3 is in preparation! Bring it on.

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The Valachi Papers. BD. Indicator. Region B. 18.
The Valdez Horses. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

Charles Bronson attained Stardom via a brace of John Sturges pictures, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) but it was Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) that recast him as an authentic Icon, the imposing rock solid landscape of Monument Valley melting into wobbly jelly when counterpoised with his craggy physiognomy. Bronson was back in Italy for Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970), where his fictional “hit man at odds with former employers” proved ideal preparation for his eponymous lead role in Terence Young’s The Valachi Papers (1972). Put together by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, the film was adapted (by Stephen Geller) from Peter Maas’s much litigated book of the same title, based on the memoirs of / interviews with the renegade Mafia soldier whose televised Senate testimony in 1963 confirmed for the first time the existence of an Italian-American organised crime syndicate, revealed much about its history, organisation and rituals and brought the expression Cosa Nostra into general usage.

Valachi’s version of events, as followed in the film, is an attempt to justify his breaking the oath of omertà, the rule of silence by which he had lived since becoming a made man in 1930. We see him, as played by Bronson, working his way up through the ranks from juvenile street gang stuff to serious involvement with the various heavyweight organised crime factions until internecine warfare between them (and in the case of Lucky Luciano, imprisonment) leads to Vito Genovese emerging as Supremo, with Valachi serving him as driver and assassin. He’s ultimately involved in the castration of Gap (Walter Chiari), a playboy gangster who’s become over friendly with Genovese’ s wife. In 1962 (while both are confined to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on drugs charges) Genovese, believing that he’s been betrayed by Valachi, gives him “Il bacio della morte”. Valachi bludgeons to death a fellow inmate whom he suspects of trying to claim the bounty on him. Now serving life for murder, he decides to testify before John L. McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in return for protective custody…

Bronson is supported here by a truly stellar cast including Lino Ventura as Genovese, Angelo Infanti (Luciano), Fausto Tozzi (as Albert Anastasia, the head of Murder Inc), Chiari, Joseph Wiseman, Amedeo Nazzari and inevitably Jill Ireland’s along for the (post-synched) ride as Valachi’s wife Maria. Mario Garbuglio’s production design and the film’s general fidelity to period accuracy (a jarringly anachronistic appearance by the Twin Towers of the WTC notwithstanding) also contribute to making The Valachi Papers an eminently watchable picture, perfectly complimented by the music of Riz Ortolani (and an uncredited Armando Trovajoli). The direction of Young (for whom Charlie had previously turned out in Cold Sweat, 1970 and Red Sun, 1971) is as slick as ever. As various collaborators (e.g. Geller and legendary make up FX man Giannetto De Rossi in the extras here) remember, Young prided himself on knocking out pictures quickly and efficiently.

In consequence The Valachi Papers, as engaging as it undoubtedly is, comes across as a superior “B” movie… a milieu in which Bronson would have felt comfortable, learning his trade as he had on the likes of Andre De Toth’s House Of Wax (1953, above), Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly (1958) and any amount of low budget war pictures and westerns. Therte’s no hint of the character depth and development that could have been attained if e.g. a Coppola or a Leone (to cite the obvious examples) had been calling the shots. Then again, they would have needed to be calling them to a Brando, a De Niro or a Pacino. Charlie Bronson, iconic as he was, was never exactly the most nuanced of performers. Horses for courses…

… which brings us, via the magic of clumsy segue, to The Valdez Horses (1973). When not typecast in Italian-American roles, Bronson (an ethnic Lithuanian, born Charles Dennis Buchinsky in 1921) often essayed Native Americans and here he’s Chino, a “half breed” horse trainer up against the competing land claims of cattle baron Maral (Marcel Bozzuffi on characteristically obnoxious form). He’d also like to be up against Maral’s sister Catherine (the miscast Ms Ireland), which only intensifies the aggro between the two men. As if this ongoing feud and the background buzz of everyday racism weren’t enough to contend with, Chino also finds himself responsible for the care of runaway kid Jamie (Vincent Van Patten).

For this film, De Laurentiis reunited Charlie with writer Geller and make up ace De Rossi, also with director John Sturges, whom he trusted to handle the star’s shyness, sensitivity, jealousy around Jill Ireland and (by general assent) outright eccentricity. Having expressed reservations about Terence Young as a director while remaining fond of him as a man, Geller and De Rossi (again featured in the extras on this disc) clearly feel no such ambivalence on the subject of Sturges. Giannetto remembers working with the director of Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) as the biggest disappointment of his professional life. Geller complains that Sturges chose to shoot in Almeria rather than The Rockies and that the director played down the the Indian stuff, which he personally had found the most intriguing element in Lee Hoffman’s source novel. Maybe he should have just taken the kid out, there seems no compelling reason for his character’s inclusion unless it’s as some kind of vague nod to George Stevens’ Shane (1953).

Things chug along efficiently enough under the direction of Sturges (until he left the production, by some accounts due to illness though others claim that he was lured away to prepare McQ, 1974, starring John Wayne in) and his replacement Duilio Coletti until the expected showdown, which turns into a puzzling climbdown on Chino’s part… it’s as though Spencer Tracy’s John Macreedy had just walked away from Black Rock, figuring that the murderers of his friend had suffered enough, or (more to the point) like Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974) forgiving those who violated his family on the grounds that they must have suffered an underprivileged upbringing. I’m not currently in a position to tell you whether Hoffman’s book ends any differently. There’s a questionable scene in which Chino, being the ol’ Romantic that his is, comes on to Catherine while they’re watching horses copulating. She resists but then realises how much she likes Chino forcing himself on her. Last time I checked, a similar scene in Massimo Dallamano’s Venus In Furs (1969) had to be cut before certification, though of course if Sergio Leone could get away with it in Duck You Sucker (1969)…

Extras wise, both releases benefit strongly from those interviews with De Rossi and Geller. The former is a certified riot, never mincing words in his character assessments of those he’s worked with. He credits people for having big balls, great faces and strong personalities and is himself deficient in none of those categories. It’s a moving moment when he tears up paying tribute to his wife Mirella. Gerber’s another repository of great anecdotes, none more entertaining than the one where he’s persuaded to leave former capo Frank Costello out of the story by Costello himself (“I was shitting my pants!”). Other Valachi extras include an audio commentary with Bronson buff and author Paul Talbot, a short archival “making of documentary” including on-set interviews with Bronson and Terence Young, a further two minutes of “behind the scenes” stuff and the expected image gallery trailers, TV and radio spots. Most compelling of all is the 18 minutes extracted from Valachi’s televised testimony before that Senate Subcommittee. Get your skates on and you’ll receive an exclusive 36-page booklet comprising a new essay by Pasquale Iannone, newspaper reports on Joseph Valachi’s criminal career, excerpts from Maas’s book, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits. Yes, this is a limited (to 3,000 units) edition UK BD premiere…

… as is The Valdez Horses. Additional extras on that one include an alternative presentation with the Italian Valdez Il Mezzosangue (“Valdez The Half-Breed”) title sequence, another Paul Talbot audio commentary, alternative titles and credits, trailers, TV spots and image gallery. The 36-page booklet here boasts a new essay by Roberto Curti, an archival on-set report with contributions from Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and John Sturges, extracts of interviews with Bronson and Ireland, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full film credits.

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“Non Ho Sonno”… Paul Schrader’s LIGHT SLEEPER Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

His intense Calvinist visions having inspired the likes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) then a run of self-directed efforts from Blue Collar (1978) to Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985), Paul Schrader knocked off a few pictures as a hired gun before returning to a more personal style of film making with Light Sleeper (1992). He envisaged this neat Neo Noir as his “midlife movie”, in which the protagonist would gain some self insight, turn his life around and attain a degree of transcendence. Nobody familiar with the director’s earlier work will be surprised to learn that the protagonist is a coke dealer, nor that his moment of transcendence is achieved during a bloody shoot out rather than in any moment of meditative reflection. Perhaps Schrader wanted to show up-and-comers like Abel Ferrara (whose Bad Lieutenant was released in the same year) that they still had a thing or two to learn about absolution and atonement, fate, free will and the whole ethical nine yards…

Although his literary pretensions are going nowhere, John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) seems to living a pretty sweet life. Having kicked his own coke habit, he spends his time supplying to various upmarket addled losers (memorably including David Spade as “Theological Cokehead”, droning on about the Ontological argument for the existence of God) and raking in their cash for himself and his narco partners Ann (Susan Sarandon) and Robert (David Clennon). He’s long accepted that coke wasn’t doing him any good but the penny is starting to drop that it’s not doing any of his customers much good either and when his activities connect his ex-wife Marianne (another apparently reformed addict played by Dana Delany) and Victor Garber’s smoothy scumbag Tis, the clock’s ticking down on that climactic bullet fest…

This picture was built around a suite of five songs by Bob Dylan, for whom Schrader had directed the video clip Tight Connection To My Heart in 1985. Dylan (and I’m cutting a long story short here) subsequently let him down about the tracks so he commissioned five similarish songs on similar themes from the Christian rocker Michael Been (not to be confused with the actor Michael Biehn) and the new numbers do work pretty well, though perhaps recalling the work of Leonard “Chuckles” Cohen more than that of Bobby the Zee.

Schrader rarely gets sufficient credit for the performances he almost invariably get out of his actors, though of course casting thesps as accomplished the ones assembled here is half the battle. Dafoe keeps you on side right through his redemptive journey (and it’s nigh on impossible, as usual, to take your eyes off Sarandon), even if the script (as Schrader freely admits in the bonus materials) gets a bit heavy handed at times, littered with clumsy taking out the trash metaphors and falls from grace. The director has confessed to watching a lot of Antonioni before making Light Sleeper, though it looks like DP Ed Lachman was bingeing on other Italian auteurs, saturating The Big Apple in Bavian / Argentoesque gels. The niche architectural nooks and crannies of New York City have never looked this infernal since… well, since Inferno (1980).

Another UK Blu-ray premiere for Indicator, limited to 3,000 copies, this disc also packs the expected slew of extras, including Schrader’s audio commentary and 18 minutes worth of Dafoe and Sarandon commenting on selected scenes. Schrader (pictured above) talks about the film and its place in his CV during an 18 minute interview. I’m always glad to hear him acknowledge Cat People from 1982, a big favourite here at THOF but often overlooked by snottier assessors of his oeuvre on account of it being a (shudder) Horror Film. In fact its Noirish urban vibe jibes beautifully with that of Light Sleeper. We’re also privy to an interview that Schrader (mostly) and Lachman gave on-stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after a screening of the film. There’s an archival audio recording of Dafoe in conversation with Guardian critic Jonathan Romney at the NFT. I suspect that “Dear Paul Schrader, Thank You for Light Sleeper” , a new ten minute short from Mark Cousins will prove to be a Marmite proposition, which is to say that you might like it a whole lot more than I did. As well as the obligatory trailer and image galleries, if you buy quickly enough, you’ll get a 36-page booklet including a new essay by Christina Newland, Kevin Jackson’s archival on-set report for Sight and Sound, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full credits.

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