Friday, June 26, 2009

Impressed with Phil Karlson

The Phil Karlson series ended on June 26 at the PFA. They screened a Phil Karlson double feature every Friday in June. I had previously seen three of the films - 99 River Street, Scandal Sheet and Gunman's Walk. I saw 99 River Street and Scandal Sheet at previous Noir City festivals and Gunman's Walk at the PFA last year.

I saw the other five films in the series.

Kansas City Confidential starring John Payne; (1952)
Tight Spot starring Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith; (1955)
5 Against the House starring Brian Keith and Kim Novak; (1955)
The Phenix City Story; (1955)
The Brothers Rico starring Richard Conte and James Darren; (1957)

I didn't know much about Karlson. I enjoyed the three films (especially Gunman's Walk) but I didn't connect Karlson to the three films. Now that I've seen five more of his films, I am ready to pronounce Karlson one my favorite director's of the era. Quoting from the PFA's copy, "Karlson is known for a particularly stark and punishing brand of noir, but his visual assaults are based in a brutal morality."

"Stark and punishing" are relative terms but what I note about his films are that they quintessentially noir in that the protagonists are not entirely undeserving of their fates. They have character flaws or made poor choices that have put them in the position they are in but they also elicit some empathy. In short, Karlson develops complex characters that transcend the standard pulp. However, his female character lacks development; Karlson definitely seemed like he was more comfortable with male characters. Karlson seemed to develop his own acting troop that he kept reuniting with - John Payne, Brian Keith and Kathryn Grant.

Kansas City Confidential is probably his best known film of the era. In the 1970's, Karlson directed Ben and Walking Tall. John Payne (who also starred in 99 River Street) plays an ex-con who is framed for a bank robbery. After being worked over by the cops but eventually cleared, he goes after the men who set him up (including Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef). In this film, cops and criminals are indistinguishable. Indeed the criminal mastermind (played by Preston Foster) is a former cop.

Kansas City Confidential wasn't my favorite of the series. I think Tight Spot would take the top spot. Ginger Rogers plays an aging convict who is furloughed so that prosecutor Edward G. Robinson and cop (or FBI agent) Brian Keith can convince her to testify against a mob kingpin (Lorne Greene). Rogers plays a brassy broad that is making the most of her time out of prison. She falls for no nonsense cop (Keith) but Keith has a secret - he's a mole working for Greene and Rogers has been targeted for execution. Rogers is fearless in eviscerating her glamorous Astaire and Rogers screen persona. Her performance carries the film.

The Phenix City Story was extremely violent and realistic for (1955). Set in Alabama in the era of segregation, one character says something like "I don't have anything against long as they mind their place." He spits the line out making no doubt of his self-delusion even if he hadn't used the N word but I was surprised to hear that line from a 1955 film. Shot on location and based on the actual assassination of the Alabama Attorney General-Elect, The Phenix City Story tells the story of how the mob corrupts the town of Phenix City. Racism doesn't play a major role in the action but it would have been impossible to ignore in 1955 Alabama.

The Brothers Rico tells the story of a man (Richard Conte) who thinks he is free of the mob but gets pulled back in when his two brothers get in a jam. In actuality, he was really never free but his brothers' predicament is the catalyst used to dupe him in setting up his brothers. Conte delivers a solid performance but the happy ending was unusually contrived (even for that era).

Finally, 5 Against the House was a lot of fun but the most dated. Perhaps most notable for a young and luscious Kim Novak in a supporting role, the film is about four Korean War vets in college. They still look too old by a decade to be going to school on the GI Bill or living in a dorm but they are. Keith suffered a head wound that causes him to go off the deep end when agitated (à la William Bendix in The Blue Dahlia). Keith convinces his buddies that they can pull off a casino robbery in Reno. They meticulously plan the heist; the centerpiece is a ruse where they convince the casino worker (William Conrad) that an armed midget is in a change cart. Karlson excels at filming the planning of and execution of the crime caper and 5 Against the House was very entertaining if not a little unbelievable.


I saw Dillinger is Dead at the YBCA. The 1969 film starred Michel Piccoli and Anita Pallenberg and was in Italian with subtitles. It was very "1960's" but not necessarily bad. A gas mask designer decides to kill his wife. The film shows the last night of her life as he cooks dinner, watches movies, drips honey on his naked maid and assembles his revolver. All the while, his wife (Pallenberg) is passed out on the bed after taking pills for her migraine. Containing more plot than I expected, the story must have been difficult to film and script as Piccoli is frequently acting in scenes by himself but his acting skills and screen persona are up to the task. In one memorable scene, Piccoli acts opposite home movie images projected on the wall. A nice soundtrack helps the movie too. In New Wave tradition, there wasn't a message per se. Piccoli is just a man that is dissatisfied with his life and does something (albeit extreme) about it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Silent Films, Jewish Films, 1939 Films and Tarantino Films

The Castro Theater has released their July programming calendar.

They are presenting a program called "1939: The Golden Year of Cinema" from July 1 to 9. 1939 is frequently cited as the greatest year in Hollywood cinema. The Castro is screening 18 films from 1939 although two of the most famous from that vintage are missing from the line-up - The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Among the standouts in the schedule are Ninotchka, The Women, Destry Rides Again (a personal favorite), Gunga Din and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

From July 10 to 12, the Castro hosts the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I've purchased my festival pass.

From July 23 to 30 (with the exception of the 24th when they screen Sing Along Hairspray), the Castro hosts the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Undoubtedly programmed to take advantage of the lead up to Inglourious Basterds (what's up with the spelling?) and perhaps the recent demise of David Carradine, the Castro is presenting "Rolling Thunder: The Films of Quentin Tarantino" from July 31 to August 2. I believe they are screening the entire filmography of Quentin Tarantino (at least as director) to date - Kill Bill Vol. 1, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Death Proof. I am an unabashed fan of Tarantino so I may be there all three days.

Rolling Thunder is the title of a 1977 revenge film starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones about a Vietnam War POW who has his arm amputated by a garbage disposal when some lowlifes rob him. If I recall correctly, Tarantino cites that film as one of his favorites. The Castro screened Rolling Thunder in February 2008 as part of the their "Second Dark Age" series which was an excellent program.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Parkway and Cerrito RIP - Not So Fast!

Like zombies rising from the dead (which I saw in spades at Hole in the Head), the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on Friday stating that the Parkway Theater in Oakland and the Cerrito Theater in El Cerrito have found new operators and will re-open shortly.

The new operator of the Cerrito is Rialto Cinemas which is a local theater chain and I use the term loosely since their chain only has two links - the Lakeside in Santa Rosa and the Elmwood in Berkeley. Motion Picture Heritage, which I'm not familiar with, is set to re-open the Parkway.

Given all the theaters in the City and the PFA and the fact that I rarely get a chance to get down to the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, I'll probably never see a film in the reincarnated Cerrito or Parkway Theaters. I do find it interesting that two separate entities are willing to operate single double screen theaters. I wonder if they will retain the kitschy charm of their Speakeasy predecessors. Of course, I speak on hearsay because I never went to those theaters when they were owned by the Speakeasy group.


The J Pop Center on Post St in Japantown in San Francisco is set to open on August 15 under the name New People. The basement will hold a movie theater that will specialize in the contemporary Japanese cinema.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

2009 Another Hole in the Head Recap

Another Hole in the Head Film Festival wrapped on June 18. With a genre festival of "Sci-Fi, Horror & Fantasy," one needs to grade on the curve. A different standard is used to judge these films. In general, they have to "more" - more violent, more outrageous, more vulgar, more gratuitous, etc..

I pulled a "Jason" meaning I saw every film at the festival. Actually, that's not quite true. For some reason, they did not screen the short film (The Pick Up) before Black Devil Doll on June 18. The film started ~15 minutes late so maybe they scrapped the short film. The total count was 20 feature films and 14 short films.

A few films stood out.

The standout of the festival was The Horseman from Australia. The plot is a vanilla flavored revenge tale. In this particular instance, a father is out for revenge after his daughter gets involved in the porn industry and overdoses on heroin. Without any black humor or self-awareness, The Horseman is brutal series of violent vignettes. I can't begin to catalog the different acts of violence. The most memorable scene was when a man has his nipple ripped out by a pair of pliers and then the wound is cauterized with a blowtorch. If that doesn't scare you off, then The Horseman your kind of movie.

A half-step behind was the closing night film. Black Devil Doll set a new standard for raunchy humor. You know you are in for a ride when the movie poster tagline proclaims "He's a lover! He's a killer! He's a muthafuckin' puppet!" A zaftig Heather Murphy is alone and bored so she starts to play with a Ouija board. Only bad things happen in the movies when a Ouija board is involved. As it so happens, a black militant murderer/rapist (of white women) is executed at the same time. His spirit is transferred (via the Ouija board) to Heather's Howdy Doody looking puppet. The puppet is transformed from a red haired, freckled face white boy to a goateed, camouflage pants/paratroop boot wearing black militant...with a taste for kinky sex with white women...before (and sometimes after) murdering them. The movie goes beyond raunchy and would get an XXX rating if a human was in the lead role. The puppet gets into analingus, water sports, roofies and bends Natasha Talonz like a pretzel in a memorable sex montage. (Talonz next movie is tentatively titled Vaginal Holocaust.) Talonz brings enthusiasm to her role as the slutty friend. We are introduced to her when she receives phone call from Heather. She's having sex but she can multitask so she takes the call - coitus continuous. If that's not enough, she even has a conversation with her young daughter (off screen) while speaking on the phone and having vigorous sexual relations. Prior to that, we learned from her answering machine that the "6:30 Gang Bang is Full." The whole film follows suit - naked women, simulated puppet sex (even with the money shot), multiple murders, sexist/racist dialogue and a great time. Black Devil Doll was filmed in Antioch which is in the Bay Area.

Black Devil Doll

Takashi Miike's Crows: Episode Zero is a formulaic film but he executes it like a master. I'm not sure what to call it but the basic formula is that the hero has to battle a succession of enemies to work his way to the top. Usually, it's a gangster film where the young turk works his way up the food chain. In Crows, the setting is a high school that is apparently a training ground for the Yakuza. The film reminded me of a pair of Walter Hill films. One is legendary The Warriors and the other is Streets of Fire with Willem Dafoe and Michael Paré among others. All three films were very stylish and set in some fictitious alternate reality. Anyway, Miike brings his typical panache to the film which looks to have a bigger budget than his most famous films. That description is lacking in detail but a week after I saw the film, I can't remember the details but rather that I enjoyed myself. The gist of the film is a skinny Japanese kid kicks ass on other students, Yakuza and cops. He has to get his ass kicked and show his heart (à la Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke) to build his alliance.

Pig Hunt is like Deliverance set in Northern California crossed with Razorback. Four guys and a cute Asian gal from San Francisco drive up to Boonville to go pig hunting. One of the guys grew up in the area. They encounters some hillbillies, a commune of lesbian marijuana growers, a hippie Mandingo and a 3,000 lb wild boar. It doesn't take a genius to figure out where this is going. The hillbillies steal the show. After killing one of their bethren, the hillbillies go gunning for the City slickers. That scene is classic parody. Let's see one of them is dressed like a Catholic priest, one guy puts on a gas mask and rides around on his motorcycle, another is dressed in Terry Bradshaw Steeler jersey and they have jeep with a teddy bear hood ornament. Strong performance all around with nice touches of humor. There was a strange "torture narrative" subplot. Upon arriving at his late uncle's "cabin," the City folk see a bunch of Guantanamo Bay newspaper articles posted on the wall. I'm not sure how that advanced the plot or filled in the backstory.

If Pig Hunt is Deliverance crossed with Razorback, Run! Bitch Run! is I Spit on Your Grave crossed with Last on the House on the Left with a dash of Kill Bill. Two Catholic schoolgirls (complete with plaid skirts and knee socks) sell Bibles door to door as school fundraiser. One day, they knock on the wrong door and encounter Lobo, a vicious drug dealer, Marla, a lesbian whore and murderer and Clint, a stutterer with a fetish for Catholic nun porn. Anyway, the two schoolgirls get raped (one of them is also forced to orally copulate Marla), one gets murdered while the other is left for dead. Of course, she's not quite dead. After awaking from her coma, she starts crossing names of her list. The films gets extra points for the machete in the rectum demise of Lobo; blood and fecal matter splattering on the faces of two women. If that isn't your cup of tea, maybe Marla masturbating with a wooden toilet plunger handle is more your style.

Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf was an American film directed by and starring Kurando Mitsutake. Mixing sepia tones from Sergio Leone, that Toshirō Mifune film where he played a samurai in the American Old West and a number of genre films where the hero has to traverse the gauntlet of various assassins with innovative ways to kill. Samurai Avenger also throws in some homage to classic grind house films. A running joke throughout the film is that whenever a particular gory scene is shown, the quality of the "film stock" drops several levels. According to the faux disclaimer, the film was shown in its original format with censored scenes restored from well worn prints.

The plot involves a Japanese man whose wife was raped and murdered while vacationing in modern day Western America. He pleads for his daughter's life. Nathan Flesher, the main villain, proposes that the man gouge out his eyes in exchange for his daughter's life. The man dutifully complies but Nathan still kills the girl. Subsequently, Flesher is convicted of another crime and on the eve of his release, Mitsutake returns to the US to get his revenge. In the intervening years, Mitsutake has transformed himself into the Blind Wolf Samurai. Not confident in his own abilities, Flesher has hired seven assassins to intercept and dispatch the avenging samurai. Among the more memorable assassins are the cute woman that fights topless to distract & hypnotize her opponents, the pregnant witch that can call forth zombie warriors and the one-eyed kung fu master. The blind samurai ends up missing a few body parts by the end of the film and there is also an amusing katana blade Caesarean.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Scottish film The Dead Outside bored me enough that I fell asleep. I am reminded of a story I read a few years ago that presaged renewed Scottish nationalism. In London, they were showing a Scottish film on television with subtitles. The dialogue was in English but the actor's Scottish brogues made their words indecipherable. This became a minor cause célèbre among Scots. There was a little of that at play in The Dead Outside as I had a hard time understanding what the actors were saying. Their accents had something to do with it but so did the low budget of the film. The elliptical plot didn't help either.

Blood River and Sex Galaxy didn't impress me much either. The other films were entertaining enough but not worth an entry. Audie and the Wolf had an interesting song that I would like to hear again. The lyrics were something like Lah-dee, lah-dee, lah-dee; my sister know karate; she went to a party; and beat everybody

The two pinku eiga (pinku eiga) films fell a little flat as well. I think I've seen six pinku eiga films between this festival and IndieFest in February. The first one I saw (S+M Hunter) at IndieFest was the only one that I truly enjoyed. The other films just can't recapture the joie de vivre of S+M Hunter.

Among the short films, Showdown of the Godz provided yeoman-like entertainment but was most notable for George Takei's appearance. Machine Girl Lite provided an alternate reality to last year's hightly enjoyable Machine Girl full feature film. Even more lacking of character development than Machine Girl (which at least provided one dimensional caricatures), Machine Girl Lite is silly to the point of boring. Although the sight of a cute Japanese girl sprouting a machine gun from her ass whenever she gets embarrassed is good for a few seconds of guffaws but extended shots of muzzle flashes and non-lethal bullet impacts gets old quickly.

I guess I'd have to give the top honors in the short film category to Marooned?, a short film that savages geeky, role-playing Trekkie types.


2009 Another Hole in the Head

Feature Films
Coming Soon; Thai with subtitles; (2009)
Be a Man! Samurai School; Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
Sex Galaxy; (2008) - Official Website
The Horseman; (2008) - Official Website
Someone's Knocking at the Door; (2009) - Official Website
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf; (2008) - Official Website
Crows: Episode Zero directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
Reel Zombies; (2008) - Official Website
Morgue Story; Portuguese with subtitles; (2009)
Silence of the Sushi Rolls; Japanese with subtitles; (2002) - Pink Eiga Website
Ninja Pussy Cat; Japanese with subtitles; (2003) - Pink Eiga Website
Monsters from the Id; (2008) - Official Website
Audie and the Wolf; (2009) - Official Website
Run! Bitch Run!; (2008) - Official Website
Frat House Massacre; (2008)
Pig Hunt; (2008) - Official Website
The Dead Outside; (2008) - Official Website
Detective Story directed by Takashi Miike; Japanese with subtitles; (2007)
Blood River; (2009)
Black Devil Doll; (2009) - Official Website

Short Films
The Wigly; (2009)
Marooned?; (2009)
The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow; (2009)
Machine Girl Lite; Japanese with subtitles; (2008)
Showdown of the Godz with George Takei; (2009)
Everything I Needed to Know About Zombies I Learned From the Movies; (2009)
The Legend of Ol' Goddie; (2009)
The Future of Fucking; (2009)
Snowbound; (2009)
Eat Me; (2009)
Without; (2009)
X-Mess Detritus; (2009)
The Vagina Song; (2009)
Daniel; (2009)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Spock's Jungle, Terran and Oedipal Fever

The Oshima and Karlson retrospectives are in full swing at the PFA. Another Hole in the Head is entering its second week at the Roxie.

However, I've been busy with other films.

Star Trek directed by J.J. Abrams; (2009) - Official Website
Easy Virtue starring Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas & Colin Firth; (2008) - Official Website
Inglorious Bastards starring Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson; (1978)
Psych-Out starring Jack Nicholson, Dean Stockwell, Susan Strasberg and Bruce Dern; (1968)

I was all over the City. Star Trek at the Balboa, Easy Virtue at the Landmark Embarcadero, Inglorious Bastards at the YBCA and Psych-Out at the Red Vic.

Star Trek is a major hit so I don't need to add much to the chorus. I enjoyed it but am a little disappointed that they rendered the original TV and movie series an alternate reality. Damn time travel; it's Star Trek writers' cocaine. How many times has the crew of the Starship Enterprise gone back in time? Some parts of the plot were silly but they did some interesting reinterpretations of the old familiars. Uhura is more accomplished and self-confident and Sulu is more masculine or de-Asianified (i.e. not hewing to the Asian male stereotype). Zach Quinto plays Spock half and half. He captures a lot of Nimoy's mannerisms but his Spock embraces his human side (as well as Uhura's human side) more openly. Come to think of it, Spock is quite the hypocrite; he hauls Kirk before the disciplinary board for "cheating" on the Kobayashi Maru exam but he's a Starfleet instructor having a relationship with his student.

Zach Quinto and Zoe Saldana in Star Trek

Easy Virtue screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival and the Mostly British Film Series at the Vogue. I had been looking forward to it for a few months. Based on a Noël Coward play set in the 1920's, the film is ostensibly a cutting satire on elitism and sexism in post-WWI British society. Viewed through the 21st century commercial cinematic prism, the film is primarily a vehicle for Jessica Biel and Kristin Scott Thomas to trade barbs and match wits. Biel holds the moral high ground especially given modern attitudes but I thought Scott Thomas gave the stronger performance. The film was uproariously funny for the first 3/4 but tacks on a serious ending that seems out of place. Kris Marshall as Furber adds to the pantheon of great deadpan performances by actors playing the butler. Kimberley Nixon as Biel's childish, cruel and morbid sister-in-law also stood out.

Kimberley Nixon, Kristin Scott Thomas and Katherine Parkinson (left to right) in Easy Virtue

I don't have much to say about Inglorious Bastards. I wasn't too impressed and wonder what Tarantino sees that I don't. I thought the film looked like a cheesy 70's action film. The special effects reminded me of a cross between an episode of The A-Team and those 1960/70's horrorfests that used squib bullets with unrealistically pink blood.

Psych-Out wasn't very good either but as a Hippie era touchstone, it was fascinating. Jack Nicholson wears a ponytail and Bruce Dern looks like Jesus. Susan Strasberg looks like she is 35 years old (she was 29 at the time of the filming) but is playing a 17 year old runaway; Nicholson looks like he's 40 (he was 31). Stockwell looks pretty much the same. Anyway, the plot involves Strasberg looking for her brother in San Francisco (Haight-Ashbury to be specific). Seeing the film in the same area where it was filmed added to the experience (like seeing Milk at the Castro Theater). The plot is just an excuse to film some exterior shots of San Francisco, espouse Hippie credo and for Stockwell to point out the shortcomings in Nicholson's character (and by extension the whole "turn on, tune in and drop out" lifestyle). I found it interesting that Nicholson beds the underage Strasberg and nothing is made of the statutory rape. Stockwell only criticizes Nicholson's promiscuous ways not his choice of underage sex partners. Of course, Stockwell later drops acid with Strasberg so he wasn't in a position to criticize. Incense and Peppermints (one of my favorite songs from the era) was on the soundtrack.

Jack Nicholson and Susan Strasberg in Psych-Out

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I Wake Up Dreaming Redux

I caught two additional films from the encore week of films from I Wake Up Dreaming at the Roxie.

The series was a tremendous success in terms of audience size. None of the screenings that I attended were sold out but the crowds were big. The crowds at the two redux screenings were much smaller.

Private Hell 36 starring Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran & Howard Duff; directed by Don Siegel; (1954)
The Port of Forty Thieves; directed by Don Siegel; (1944)

Several of the films featured John Alton as cinematographer. I think all the films were on 16 mm and some of them were in pretty bad shape. I believe The Devil Thumbs a Ride and New York Confidential were screened on 35 mm.


My favorite films from the festival were:

Private Hell 36 was by far my favorite film of the festival. I'm glad that I was able to catch it during the redux week. I missed the original screening to see Ms. 45.

Ida Lupino and her husband Collier Young had screenwriting credits for Private Hell 36. At the time of the film's release he was her ex-husband. Don Siegel was the director. He would go on to direct Clint Eastwood in several popular films in the 1970's (Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Coogan's Bluff and Escape from Alcatraz).

The plot involved two cops that are investigating $300,000 in stolen cash. After finding the money, they make a fateful decision to pocket some of the cash. One partner, Howard Duff, is wracked with guilt and fear of getting caught. The other partner, Steve Cochran, who instigated the filching is driven by greed and the need to impress his girlfriend (Ida Lupino). Eventually, Cochran loses his morals and plans to kill his partner to keep 100% of the cash.

If the plot seems deceptively simple, it's not...there's no deception about it. The film telegraphs the plot to anyone with a casual knowledge of noir. What makes the film engaging are the performances of Duff and Cochran (and to a lesser extent Lupino). Right from the start, you can see that Cochran is the type of person that takes risks when he investigates a burglary without calling for backup. Duff seems like the type of person that would have lived his life in quiet desperation but once he goes along with the theft, he becomes irritable and miserable. Lupino vacillates between a wise cracking, tough cookie out to make a buck to a supportive girlfriend looking for the white picket fence.

There is something about Lupino that makes you feel she was born to play the bitch. Her character isn't particularly bitchy compared to While the City Sleeps, Road House or The Hard Way but I kept expecting her to take a devious turn or spit out a catty remark.

So like many great noirs, Private Hell 36 combines a character study with elements of the police procedural. Throughout the film, you can feel the characters suffocating from the after effects of their crime as well as the tightening vise of their captain's suspicions.

The title refers to camper 36 where the cops stash their stolen loot.

A close second to Private Hell 36 was New York Confidential which features the fabulous raspy staccato of Broderick Crawford's voice. Crawford seems to deliver his lines as if he was late for an appointment. Crawford plays a mob boss who fashions himself as a modern CEO but never extricates himself from the messy business of La Cosa Nostra. Richard Conte plays his protégé and Anne Bancroft (unrecognizable to me) plays his dissatisfied daughter.

Again, this films focuses on the complex relationships Crawford has with Conte and Bancroft but has enough crime capers to keep you interested. Conte kills a man by hiding his pistol in a folded newspaper. Mike Mazurki has a small role as a hitman and they film skillfully builds suspense as he tries to escape a highrise in an elevator. Having just committed a murder, the elevator excruciating stops at every floor on the way down.

The key to the film is the poisoning effect the Mafia has on its own. Crawford drives his daughter to suicide even though he only wants the best for her. Conte who is the smartest of the bunch has to kill his mentor and still can't escape his fate. For all their faux business professionalism, the gangsters in this film are misguided and violent men who can only look forward to a violent death.

The film was based on various Mafia incidents in the 1950's. Crawford's character must have been partially patterned on Frank Costello. There is a meeting of "the Commission" like the Apalachin Meeting two years after the film was released. Another character was clearly patterned on Senator Estes Kefauver. For it's time, it must have had that "rippped from the headlines" feel.

A funny piece of trivia is that Conte plays the son Crawford never had but in real life, Conte was 8 months older than Crawford. Despite having romantic intentions towards Conte, Bancroft was 20 years his junior.

The Pretender was notable for Albert Dekker's descent into madness. I would say paranoia but how does the saying go? It isn't paranoia when they really are out to get you. Dekker has his eye's on Catherine Craig's fortune. He wants to marry her but she hints of a fiancé. The problem is that Craig has so many guys hanging around and is so private that she won't identify her betrothed. No problem, Dekker hire a hit man (through a middle man) to kill her fiancé. Dekker says to look for the engagement photo in the society pages of the newspaper.

You guessed it, Craig cancels the engagement and eventually marries Dekker. Their photo is in the paper but Dekker cancels the hit. The only problem is the cutout man gets whacked and Dekker isn't sure if the hit man got the cancel order. So he becomes a recluse and highly suspicious of his wfie's household staff. Unable to tell her the true reason for his bizarre behavior, she begins to suspect he is going insane. I won't give away the ending but Dekker (who is usually relegated to supporting roles) nailed this role and made for a highly entertaining movie.

City of Fear was a police procedural involving the improbable story of a container of radioactive Cobalt-60 in Los Angeles. An escaped prisoner grabs a metal cannister of what he thinks is heroin. It turns out the government is performing experiments involving exposing Coblalt-60 to prisoners. The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game as the cops look for the con and the con avoids the police. All the while, Vince Edwards, as the escaped convict, develops a hacking cough and extreme fatigue. The casual handling of such highly radioactive material was quaintly amusing but the dragnet aspect of the film was above average and kept me interested.

The two Lawrence Tierney films were notable for the amoral gusto that he brought to each role. I thought he was more menacing in The Devil Thumbs a Ride but I liked the plot of The Hoodlum better. Neither film was particularly noteworthy except for Tierney's textbook portrayals of hardened killers.

Framed which I saw at the 2008 Noir City was also entertaining. Glenn Ford plays a stubborn hot-head but Janis Carter steals the film as the femme fatale. She kills her married boyfriend (Barry Sullivan) and comes within a skosh of getting Ford to drink coffee laced with rat poison.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced their 2009 schedule. The festival runs July 10 to 12 at the Castro.

The first thing I noticed was that Lupe Velez films opens and closes the festival. She is notoriously Known to future generations as the actress who attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills but ignominiously drowned in her toilet as she was trying to retch the drugs from her system. That story is quite possibly apocryphal and has more to do with an Andy Warhol film. However during her time she was popular actress that had success in silent films and talkies. Strikingly beautiful with strong Latina features and a heavy accent (which may have been affected for the films), Velez was a celebrity in the modern connotation. She had a tumultuous marriage to Johnny Weismuller and is rumored to have bedded the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1920's and 30's.

Also Underworld (which was one of my favorite films from last year's von Sterberg retrospective at PFA) is screening at the festival this year.


The opening night films is The Gaucho (1927) starring Douglas Fairbanks and the "Mexican Spitfire", Lupe Velez.

Douglas Fairbanks at his rakish best is the Gaucho, notorious bandit leader whose turf is the Argentine pampas. But honor among thieves dictates that when a corrupt general plunders a miraculous Andean shrine, the Gaucho and his banditos come to the rescue. Fairbanks, a huge star at the time, wrote this glorious adventure and generously shares the spotlight with dazzling newcomer, Lupe Velez in her first starring role. Watch for Mary Pickford as the Madonna!

Other films that catch my attention are:

Bardelys The Magnificent (1926) starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor.

King Vidor's swashbuckling romance was lost to the ages until the discovery of nitrate materials in a French vault. Superbly restored digitally, the film confirms the scope of John Gilbert's bountiful talents. As a wryly comic and athletic ladies man, Gilbert captivates the lovely Eleanor Boardman (and the audience). The story, set in the court of Louis XIII, hinges on mistaken identity, political intrigue, and personal perfidy, building to a rousing (and oh-so-satisfying) denouement!

As I recall, John Wayne screen debut was a small (possibly uncredited) role in this film.

Wild Rose (1932)

Wang Renmei is the Wild Rose in writer-director Sun Yu's tale of a mischievous country girl, a wealthy Shanghai boy with an artist's eye, and the historical events that ultimately determine their love story. Set in the same era as Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, the film portrays a fascinating contrast of rustic countryside and Art Deco cityscape. Renmei (who was given the nickname "Wildcat" for her unbridled performance) and co-star Jin Yan (considered the Valentino of China) married her once filming was over. Their on-screen chemistry is the real thing!

The Wind (1928) starring Lilian Gish

Along with Griffith and Murnau, Swedish director Victor Sjostrom was one of the giants of the silent era who convinced critics that the motion picture was not a bastard child of the stage, but a vital art form in its own right. The Mojave Desert stands-in for the harsh Texas landscape where young Letty (the luminous Lillian Gish) finds herself fighting loneliness, a violent suitor, and the relentless, punishing wind. Truly magnificent! This performance will feature a special wind effect used in the 1920s! And special guest Leonard Maltin will introduce.

So's Your Old Man (1926) starring W.C. Fields.

W.C. Fields rose to fame as a vaudeville juggler, but his movies forever established him as a duplicitous, bibulous, hilariously foul-spirited idler who'd steal candy from a baby. In So's Your Old Man, Fields is a put-upon paterfamilias who triumphantly invents unbreakable windshield glass. But instead of acclaim, he shames his family until a princess comes to his rescue. This is a very rare screening from a comic master known mainly for his work in the talking cinema, specially picked by director Terry Zwigoff who will introduce the film. (The film was recently inducted into The Library of Congress National Registry!)

Lady of the Pavement starring Lupe Velez and directed by D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith's last silent film surprised contemporary critics who felt that he had lost his touch. This marvelous romantic drama is a return to form, with splendid cinematic flourishes that confirm the masters place in the firmament. Set in 19th-century Paris where Prussian aristocrat Karl von Arnim (William Boyd, future Hop-a-Long Cassidy star) falls in love with Spanish cabaret chanteuse Nanon (the magnificent Lupe Velez). The film was completed as a silent, then partially re-shot to qualify as a part-talkie including two musical numbers using Griffith's innovative experimentation with sound modulation.