Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Little Tramp Returns

As I mentioned, there was a Charlie Chaplin retrospective at the Castro Theater in September. I went to several of the screenings.

The Circus silent with intertitles; (1928, 72 min.)
The Idle Class with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1921, 32 min.)
A Day's Pleasure with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1919, 19 min.)
City Lights with Virginia Cherrill; silent with intertitles; (1931, 87 min.)
A Dog's Life with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1918, 33 min.)
Sunnyside with Edna Purviance; silent with intertitles; (1919, 30 min.)
The Kid with Edna Purviance & Jackie Coogan; silent with intertitles; (1921, 54 min.)

All the films starred and were directed by Chaplin. All the films (except City Lights, I believe) were re-scored by Chaplin in the later part of his life.

As it turned out, I had previously seen all the films except A Dog's Life and The Kid. I saw most of the film in December 2007 when the Castro and PFA had a similar Chaplin retrospective.

I won't recount the films that I've previously seen except City Lights. Having seen several Chaplin films, I think my two favorite are City Lights and Modern Times which are similar in that they were released well into the "talkie" era but largely used silent film techniques. The films were scored and had some sound effects but there was no dialogue. Instead, intertitle cards were used. I guess Chaplin perfected the silent film except he didn't do it until after sound came to the movies.

City Lights has the Little Tramp trying to raise money for an operation to restore the eyesight of a blind woman (Cherrill). The film features several hilarious scenes involving the Tramp with a millionaire (Harry Myers) who is his best friend when drunk and can't remember him when sober. Also, there is a classic scene where the Tramp boxes a few rounds to make some money.

The performance of Virginia Cherrill was particularly effective. I have not seen her in any other films. A few years after City Lights, Cherrill would become Mrs. Cary Grant. After a short marriage to him, she would go on to marry into English nobility and become the Countess of Jersey. However, at the time of filming City Lights, Cherrill was a 23 year old actress with only screen credit to her name.

Her performance as the blind woman is very good but in the last scene of the film, Chaplin and Cherrill have an exchange which is exceptional. Having had her sight restored, Cherrill's character is now the confident owner of a successful floral shop. Chaplin is just released from prison for stealing the money (wrongfully accused I might add) used to pay for Cherrill's operation. Chaplin, of course, knows who Cherrill is but Cherrill's character has never seen her benefactor and is certainly not expecting a down & out hobo. In a complex mix of condescension, pity and kindness, Cherrill offers the Tramp a fresh cut flower and a coin. When she feels his hand, she realizes who the Tramp is. As the films fades out, Cherrill (and Chaplin) are distinctly ambiguous as to how they feel. Cherrill appears shocked and little disappointed; Chaplin seems embarrassed.


The films I saw for the first time were The Kid and A Dog's Life.

Released in 1918, A Dog's Life is one the earliest Little Tramp films I've seen. After seeing more developed plotlines by Chaplin, a two-reeler like A Dog's Life doesn't stand up well in comparison. The Tramp has a number of humorous scenes but his bond to the dog or dance hall girl Edna Purviance is not explored much. The highlights include the Tramp avoiding a police officer by sliding under a fence, a dog (looked like a pit bull) biting the Tramp on the seat of his pants and hanging one while he twirls around and the Tramp outwitting a thief by standing behind an unconscious man and fooling him into thinking his arms belong to the unconscious man.

The Kid was a better film but still has a thin plot. Jackie Coogan is cute as a button. The Tramp is up to his usual bag of tricks but instead of dog, he has a five year old as a sidekick. A few scenes were touching but the story didn't pull at my heartstrings as much I thought it would.


On second viewing, the film which caught my attention was Sunnyside. In this film, Charlie does not don his Tramp wardrobe until late in the film. Charlie plays a lovestruck hotel bellboy. The character is not much like the Little Tramp. Later, seeing Edna Purviance's character romanced by a big city dandy, Charlie dons some of the Tramps clothing. He adds some makeshift spats and cane with some match in the tip to mimic the dandy but the resemblance to the Tramp is unmistakable. Equally interesting was that Edna's father in the film was reading a Hebrew language newspaper. I'm sure that was part of the "Chaplin is Jewish" conspiracy.

Seeing Chaplin in a role other than the Little Tramp and playing the role well made me wonder what Chaplin could have accomplished if he were not so committed to playing the Little Tramp. Of course, he was the most accomplished actor in Hollywood of his generation and his work endures nearly 100 years later. Maybe I'm being sacrilegious but the Little Tramp gets old for me after awhile. Having seen Chaplin in his later works after he stopped playing the character, I wish I could see more of the younger Chaplin in roles other than the Tramp.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Swooning in Berkeley

In September, the PFA screened a series called Swoon: Great Leading Men in Gorgeous 35mm Prints. I was able to catch three of the nine films in the series.

Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1947)
House of Bamboo starring Robert Ryan and Robert Stack; with Shirley Yamaguchi and Sessue Hayakawa; directed by Sam Fuller; (1952)
Jubal starring Glenn Ford, Rod Steiger and Ernest Borgnine; with Charles Bronson and Valerie French; directed by Delmer Daves; (1956)

The film which I regret missing from the series is Picnic (1956) with William Holden Rosalind Russell and Kim Novak. Other films in the series which I've seen (several on the big screen in the past few years) include From Here to Eternity, Godard's Breathless and The Hustler.


Out of the Past is one of the quintessential examples of film noir. I had not seen the film before. It's funny how little things stick in your mind. I recall Robert Mitchum guest hosting Saturday Night Live many years ago. They had a skit which was unusual because it was film outside the studio (Studio 8H in Rockefeller Plaza). I remember in the skit that Mitchum worked at gas station and he had an assistant who was a deaf mute. As I started watching Out of the Past, I realize that Mitchum's character worked at a gas station and his assistant is a deaf mute. It seems to much to be coincident. Maybe I'm conflating memories. So I go to the internet and lo & behold, on November 14, 1987, Mitchum hosted SNL. According to the transcript, the 7th skit was "Out of Gas" and co-starred Jane Greer, Mitchum's co-star in Out of the Past. Sometimes, the mind is an amazing thing. By the way, that episode is also the one where Dana Carvey as Mountain Man tells Jon Lovitz that "I bet you have a teenie weenie peenie!" That gives the episode a little more context. I remember being in college at the time and watching that episode because afterwards, my college buddies and I used that as a catch phrase for weeks.

Out of the Past has many of the hallmarks of noir - extended flashbacks, snappy tough-guy dialog and a particularly effective femme fatale in Jane Greer. Kirk Douglas also shows up as a menacing gangster. The film is rightly placed in the pantheon of film noir so I won't waste time with plot synopsis. I was particularly impressed with Mitchum's weariness, Greer's perfidy and Douglas' smooth demeanor. Tourneur combined these performances with a convoluted plot and a lot of angst from Mitchum to achieve noir greatness.


House of Bamboo stars Robert Ryan as the bad guy. Ryan has to be one of the great villains in Hollywood history. The more soothing Ryan attempts to speak, the more threatening he comes off. My favorite Ryan performances are as the racist bank robber in Odds Against Tomorrow and the pursuing Deke Thornton in Sam Fuller's The Wild Bunch. Ryan's Sandy Dawson in House of Bamboo is a strong performance also.

The plot involves Eddie Spanier arriving in Japan from San Francisco. He's looking for his buddy Webber who sent him a letter with a business proposition. Unfortunately, the man has been shot dead. Spanier starts nosing around and discovers Webber had a secret Japanese wife (Shirley Yamaguchi). He also tries to muscle in on the protection racket at some pachinko parlors which runs him afoul of Sandy Dawson, the local ganglord. After some circling, Eddie is accepted into Dawson's gang which does a lot more than run pachinko parlors. They have stolen weapons from the US Army and are ruthless bank robbers. Even more ominous is their policy of shooting anyone in their gang who is wounded during a robbery. That way, the wounded man won't be able to talk to the authorities.

Unfortunately, Spanier is shot on his first holdup but inexplicably Dawson spares his life. That's fortunate for Spanier but unfortunate for Dawson because Eddie Spanier is really Eddie Kenner, an Army Police Investigator who has gone undercover to break up Dawson's gang. As the film progresses, Dawson takes a liking to Spanier and forms an informal mentoring relationship with him. Actually, I thought there was a bit of sexual attraction from Dawson towards Spanie but being 1952, this was hinted at in the subtlest ways. Why else did the hardened Dawson spare Spanier? This blinds Dawson when his final robbery is thwarted by pre-positioned police officers. Rather than blaming Spanier, Dawson blames another gang member who pays for it with his life. When Dawson finally realizes his mistake, it leads to an iconic shootout on rooftop playground between Spanier and Dawson.

What set House of Bamboo apart was the complex relationship between Spanier and Dawson but the allegorical relationship between Spanier and Mariko (Yamaguchi). It turns out the Webber didn't keep his marriage to Mariko a secret because he was ashamed to be married to Japanese woman or to protect her from Dawson but because Mariko would have been ostracized for associating an gaijin or foreigner. For proof, look no further than when Mariko takes up with Spanier. The resentment she encounters is so fierce that she wants to break it off until Spanier reveals he is undercover and looking for her late husband's killer. In some sense, Mariko represent Japan and Spanier the US. Their relationship is such that Spanier is always the dominant one and Mariko the subservient one which must have rankled many Japanese in 1952. The film even portends the Caucasian male/Asian female relationship which upsets so many by its ubiquitousness today.

As Mariko, Yamaguchi delivers a strong performance. I saw Yamaguchi earlier this year in Kurosawa's Scandal with Toshirō Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Her performance in Bamboo is more noteworthy. Yamuguchi's life merits mention. Still alive at the age of 90, Yamaguchi performed under several names including Lǐ Xīanglán and Yoshiko Ōtaka. At the time House of Bamboo was made, Yamaguchi was married to noted architect Isamu Noguchi.

Having grown up in Manchuria, she made a name for herself as Lǐ Xīanglán, one of the Seven Great Singing Star of China in the 1930s. She was fortunate to speak Chinese and Japanese during a period when Japan occupied much of China. So effective was her assumed Chinese identity that after WWII, Yamaguchi was arrested by Chinese authorities for treason and collaboration with the enemy under the mistaken assumption she was a Chinese national.

After performing in Japan under yet another name, she settled on Shirley Yamaguchi after some success in Hollywood and on Broadway. Later, she served nearly 20 years in the Japanese parliament.


Jubal was a story of jealousy and felt a bit like a noir despite its Western setting. Set in Wyoming a few years after the Civil War, Glenn Ford plays Jubal, a down & out cowboy who Ernest Borgnine finds on the roads. Borgnine owns a ranch and takes Ford home to recuperate. Once back on his feet, Borgnine offer Ford a job on his ranch. This starts in powerful emotions into motion. Ford immediately gets on the wrong side of Rod Steiger, a fellow ranch hand. That doesn't seem to strange because Steiger seems to be antisocial towards everyone. More dangerous is the attraction of Borgnine's wife (Valerie French) towards Ford. It always a bad idea to have an affair with your boss' wife but in this case Borgnine has jealous streak and violent temper. Also, Steiger has already cuckolded Borgnine and he doesn't like his position being usurped by Ford.

As the film progresses, Borgnine and Ford develop a strong friendship. Ford has his own issues to deal with - a bastard child, watching his father die while trying to save him and a mother who resents him for being born and causing his father's death. Ford tries to keep his distance from French but as the PFA program notes state, she is "vampiric." She is relentless in pursuing Ford who clearly is attracted to her but is using all his self-restraint to control his passions. It doesn't help that Borgnine is such a boor and French obviously regrets their marriage.

Steiger and French make a confrontation between Borgnine and Ford inevitable despite Ford's effort to the contrary. After a shootout, Steiger leads a lynch mob after Ford. Charles Bronson appears as a cowboy given on a job on ranch who becomes Ford's best friend. It's a little odd to see Steiger as a cowboy but he performs quite well in the role.

Best line: French ask Ford, "Do you know how many proposals I had before meeting Shep (Borgnine)?" Ford responds, "Proposals for what?"

Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford combined for three terrific Westerns that I'm now aware of - Jubal, 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and my favorite, CowboyJubal (1958) with Jack Lemmon.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jacques Mesrine Was a One Bad Man But Two Very Good Films

I saw the two part Jacques Mesrine biopic this month. I watched Mesrine: Killer Instinct at the Landmark Embarcadero and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One at the Landmark Lumiere.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct starring Vincent Cassel; with Gérard Depardieu; directed by Jean-François Richet; French with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website
Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One starring Vincent Cassel; directed by Jean-François Richet; French with subtitles; (2008) - Official Website


I was not familiar with the French gangster Jacques Mesrine (pronounced may-reen). He was active in France and Canada from the mid-1960s to his death in 1979. As I was watching the two films, I wondered how much of the action on screen was rooted in fact. The man had more lives than a cat.

Recounting some of his more daring real-life exploints,

  • Mesrine escaped from a Quebec prison only to return a few week later in an attempt to break out some of the other prisoners

  • Mesrine smuggled a gun into court and kidnapped a judge about to pass sentence on him

  • Mesrine later was captured and wrote his autobiography while in a maximum security prison; he smuggled the manuscript out and it was published

  • Mesrine escaped from that French prison and subsequently gave interviews to Paris Match

  • What made Mesrine the John Dillinger of France? The film doesn't quite explain the why but stylishly depicts the what. Why did Mesine turn to a life of crime? The film lays much of the causation on the Algerian War where a young Mesine served. It also implies that his father was a Nazi collaborator and Mesine's disgust with his father's henpecked life. In real life, before going to Algeria, Mesrine went to a prestigious college and was expelled for aggressive behavior.

    In the films, Mesrine comes into his own as his criminal exploits increase in grandeur. As portrayed by Cassel, Mesrine is fearless, cold-blooded and has a natural panache. Told in a series of vignettes, the film builds Mesrine's mythology one crime at a time. Along the way, Mesrine the man is subsumed by Mesine the legend. Mesrine begins to think himself invincible because no matter how outrageous the crime or how much the odds are stacked against himself, Mesrine survives and is frequently successful.

    The films become more entertaining as Mesrine becomes more flamboyant which apparently mirrored real life. It's as if the real Mesrine lived his life as if he were a character in an action movie. Just enough humanity is attributed to Mesrine to make the films interesting. I thought the scene at a Spanish nightclub where Mesrine meets his future wife was telling. Cassel brings an appealing charisma to Mesrine which I'm sure overstated the real man's persona. Contrasted against the violence committed by Mesrine, the character takes on a complexity which is almost enough. Gérard Depardieu, barely recognizable to me, seems to have a great time as the gangster who serves as Mesrine's mentor.

    The Mesrine films were eminently watchable and quite good. I slightly preferred the first film Mesrine: Killer Instinct which follows Mesrine's life up to and including his time in Quebec.

    Friday, September 24, 2010

    A Third Death Note, Nazi Resistance, Alice Creed, Alice Reed and Olivia de Havilland Times Two

    Over the three day Labor Day Weekend, I caught a trio of double features. I previously wrote about the Death Note films. By the way, there is a third Death Note film called Death Note: L, Change the World (2008). Ken'ichi Matsuyama reprises his role but the plot is largely independent of the events in the other Death Note films.

    I saw Death Note on Saturday. On Sunday, I went to the Balboa and saw

    Army of Crime; French & German with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
    The Disappearance of Alice Creed starring Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan and Gemma Arterton; (2009) - Official Website

    On Monday, I drove to Palo Alto and went to the Stanford Theater to see

    The Woman in the Window starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett; directed by Fritz Lang; (1944)
    The Dark Mirror starring Olivia de Havilland and Lew Ayres; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1946)


    Army of Crime played at this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It was well received. The film is based on the real events involving a Nazi resistance cell led by French Armenian poet Missak Manouchian. The cast is large as several of the resistance fighers and their families are profiled. The very beginning of the film consists of a voice over roll call of the individuals with the declaration that they died for their country. Off the bat, you know thing won't end well for Manouchian and his group.

    The film was a taut thriller but I didn't find it particularly memorable. Virginie Ledoyen who played Manouchian's wife stood out. I also found it ironic that the teenage Jewish girl informed on the cell. Actually, that part of the plot was the most interesting. Marcel Rayman (played by Robinson Stevenin) is a young man who is the most ardent of resisters. His girlfriend, Monique (Lola Naymark), escapes the roundup of the Jews but has to provide sexual favors from a French police inspector (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) to survive.


    The Disappearance of Alice Creed was memorable in the extreme. One of the best films I've seen this year, Alice Creed is lean thriller in which only three people appear on screen - Danny (Martin Compston) and Vic (Eddie Marsan) are two well-prepared kidnappers and their victim is Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton). The film chronicles the preparation of the crime, the period Creed is held hostage and the resolution of the events. On first impression, Danny is a little nervous, Vic is rock steady and possible sociopathic and Alice Creed is terrified. As the film unfolds, the backstory is revealed and there are several surprises which I won't reveal. The relationship between the three changes as the film progresses and there are enough twists to keep one guessing as to how the film will end. The three actors and director J Blakeson do an excellent job in prolonging the heightened sense of anxiety.

    I've seen quite a bit of Marsan in the past couple years. Recent credits which I've enjoyed include a small role in the Red Riding Trilogy, a supporting role in The Illusionist and the unhinged driving instructor in Happy-Go-Lucky. I think he is quite a talented actor and his character in Alice Creed shows his range.


    The Woman in the Window was tremendously entertaining. Edward G. Robinson plays a bored college psychology professor whose family is away for the summer. Professor Richard Wanley dines nightly at his private gentlemen's club with his best friends: Frank Lalor, the District Attorney and Dr. Michael Barkstane, his physician. Next to the club, Wanley notices a painting of a beautiful woman. One night, while gazing at the painting, the woman appears behind him as she likes to admire her own image. Her name is Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). She and Wanley strike up a conversation which leads to Wanley having a nightcap at her apartment. Suddenly a man bursts in and starts attacking Wanley. In self-defense, Wanley kills the man. Alice informs him that he is a man she has dallied with. The only point of disbelief was at this moment. Instead of calling the police, Wanley & Reed decide to dispose of the body. I can half-way believe it since it would have been a scandal for the married Wanley to be involved in the death of a beautiful woman's acquaintance. Less believable is why Reed would go along with it.

    Once we move past that sticking point, the film moves into high gear. Wanley is fed information about the case in the form of gossip from Lalor. Repeatedly Wanley reveals information which only the killer would know but it is dismissed as coincident since Lalor would never expect his old friend of such a crime. Slowly, the investigation closes in on Wanley but a real monkey wrench is thrown into the works when Dan Duryea shows up to blackmail Wanley & Reed. Watching Robinson sink while desperately trying to keep his head above the fray was immensely enjoyable. The ending was a huge disappointment which would only be tolerated in Hollywood during the Production Code. However, Lang infuses the scene without enough tongue-in-cheek to make it barely palatable. Despite that, the film is one of the best suspense and even noir films I've seen.


    The least fulfilling of the four films was The Dark Mirror which stars Olivia de Havilland in dual roles. She plays identical twins - one good and one evil (and a killer). Fortunately for the audience, they wear monogrammed accessories to help distinguish them. That is until the decide to fool the psychiatrist (Lew Ayres) who is interviewing them for his research...and falls in love with one of them. But does he know which one is which? You get the gist of the plot. De Havilland wasn't bad but the plot was so contrived that it was difficult to appreciate the film for its merits. Thomas Mitchell, who I've recently seen in Stage Coach, High Noon and Dark Waters, shows up as the befuddled police detective. He provides some comic relief.

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    Death Notes

    At the 2008 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I saw Death Note. I enjoyed the Japanese suspense film which ended with a cliffhanger. I expected SFIAAFF to bring back the 2nd half of the film series at the 2009 festival. However, they did not. I was hoping they would screen part 2 at the 2010 festival. They did not.

    However, Viz Cinema has presented Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name since its opening last year. I believe the screenings were part of the release of the DVDs. On September 4, Viz screened both films as part of the BlueRay release. I decided to watch Death Note: The Last Name and rewatch Death Note since I haven't seen it in 2½ years.

    I didn't quite enjoy Death Note as much as before. It might have been that knowing the major plot points took away some of the enjoyment. I notice many films do not hold up to multiple viewings. More disappointing was that I didn't enjoy Death Note: The Last Name as much as Death Note.

    The plot of Death Note involves a notebook which Light Yagami finds. He's a college student studying to be a lawyer. The notebook states that if a person's name is written in the notebook while the writer imagines the person's face, that person will die. Yagami tests the procedure with a vile criminal and is surprised to find the notebook really works. Yagami, increasingly disenchanted with the real-world application of the laws, becomes an epistolary vigilante. He metes out death to criminals and alleged criminals who have gotten off on technicalities. His work is so prolific that he becomes a media sensation dubbed Kira. He also garners the attention of the Japanese government who form a task force to catch Kira. Coincidentally, the head of the task force is Soichiro Yagami, Light's father (played by Takeshi Kaga who is better known as The Chairman in the Japanese version of Iron Chef).

    Soon, Light goes mano y mano with L, the mysterious and unseen super detective who has joined forces with Soichiro Yagami's task force. At this point, the film(s) get a too cute by a half. There are a bunch of twists and turns involing Light's girlfriend, a Japanese FBI agent, a television celebrity who discovers a second Death Note(book) and two shinigami (or death gods).

    The final result was a film that had too many plot twists to keep me fully involved. The film could have benefited by giving more time to the cat and mouse game between Light and L who becomes more suspicious of Light with each death. Ken'ichi Matsuyama as L and Tatsuya Fujiwara as Light Yagami give tremendous performances. Fujiwara gives a complex performance as Light loses his moral compass and becomes worse than the criminals he condemns. Matsuyama's L is more flamboyant with his addiction to junk food and rococo mannerisms. The scenes when Light & L verbally spar are the best part of the film. I also thought more could be done with Light's relationship with his father.

    I am well acquainted with a few of Matsuyama previous works. He has appeared in The Taste of Tea, Linda, Linda, Linda and Detroit Metal City which is currently playing at Viz Cinema. The first two films are among my favorites and I've been anticipating Detroit Metal City for a few months.


    Death Note starring Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Tatsuya Fujiwara; Japanese with subtitles; (2006) - Official Website
    Death Note II: The Last Name starring Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Tatsuya Fujiwara; Japanese with subtitles; (2006) - Official Website

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    Coffee and Grapefruit

    The Castro had a Blonde Bombshell series in late August/early September. Marilyn Monroe featured prominently in the series but I only caught two films where the bombshells were Gloria Grahame and Jean Harlow.

    The Big Heat starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin; directed by Fritz Lang; (1953)
    The Public Enemy starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow; with Joan Blondell; directed by William Wellman; (1931)

    Both films are well known and regarded. The Public Enemy along with Little Caesar (1931) with Edward G. Robinson kicked off the era of the gangster films in the 1930s and solidified Cagney and Robinson's careers. For years, the two of them (and to a lesser extent Humphrey Bogart) would be typecast as gangsters and tough guys. These films would be the progenitor of noir proper of which The Big Heat is a well regarded example.

    Both films have famous scenes depicting violence towards women. In The Public Enemy, Cagney smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face. In The Big Heat, Lee Marvin throws hot coffee onto Gloria Grahame's face.

    I don't recall seeing The Big Heat before. I have seen portions of The Public Enemy on television but it was so long that I couldn't remember the plot.


    The Big Heat features Glenn Ford in his tough guy persona. I never found Ford as believable in those roles as he was when he played the "ordinary man." In The Big Heat, Ford plays Dave Bannion, a cop investigating the death of another police officer. Warnings from his boss & gangsters, his resignation from the police force and even a car bomb which kills his wife are insufficient to dissuade him from investigating the suspicious circumstances regarding the man's death. The main suspects in the murder are gangster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and his vicious lieutenant Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) is Stone's saucy and sauced girlfriend. Marsh flirts a little too much with Bannion and the infamous coffee in the face scene is her punishment.

    Grahame and Marvin dominate the screen when they are on it (separately and together). I saw Grahame and Ford together in Fritz Lang's Human Desire (1954) at the Roxie in September 2009 as part of their Columbia Noir series. The difference between the two films shows the range Grahame and Ford had. The film follows Bannion's dogged pursuit of the killers and the redemption of and revenge by Marsh. Grahame's transformation in the film is remarkable.


    The Public Enemy is the story of the rise and fall of gangster Tom Powers (James Cagney) during Prohibition. Painted in broad strokes, it's not clear to me what leads Powers into his life of crime and misogyny. As a boy, his cop father is distant and his mother uncritical of his behavior but that doesn't fully explain his descent into the underworld. Once Powers decides to be a gangster, he decides to be the best gangster he can be. At the time the film was released, Prohibition was still in effect and the depiction of the family life of Tom Powers must have seemed a realistic portrayal of a real-life problem.

    Viewed nearly 80 years later, the film seems like a vehicle for "Cagney being Cagney." His twitchy mannerisms and distinctive speech patterns are present. Indeed, this was the film that made Cagney a star. Harlow's role is smaller. She doesn't show up until midway through the film. She plays a floozy who gets her hooks into Tom Powers but Tom is no one's fool except his own. That is to say that Powers isn't fooled by anyone because he doesn't trust anyone. However, Tom thinks himself invincible even as he kills and sees his friends and cohorts killed.

    The grapefruit scene is a small part of the film and relates more to Powers growing dissatisfaction from his girlfriend (Mae Clarke) who will soon be replaced by the more venal and manipulative Jean Harlow. The legend is that the scene was a gag for the crew but director Wellman liked it so much that he kept it in.

    The more iconic scenes are Cagney dodging machine gun fire by running around the corner of a building while his best is shot and the final scene where Cagney's corpse is left on the doorstep of his mother's house. Allegedly, real bullets were used in the scene where Cagney was dodging the bullets. He tripped during the filming so the bullets missed but if he hadn't the bullets would have struck him in the head and shoulders. Cagney laughed off the incident but it was the genesis for Cagney's later activism in the Screen Actors Guild.

    Another interesting note is that in a scene where Tom's brother punches him, Wellman instructed Donald Cook to actually punch Cagney but he didn't tell Cagney it was going to happen. Cook punched Cagney so hard that he chipped one his teeth but Cagney stayed in character.


    Both films were enjoyable. I have a decided preference for old films so my judgment may be biased. Cagney's death in The Public Enemy predates the Hays Code so there was no need for him to die. His death along with the social commentary via title cards made the ending distastefully moralizing for me. The story was entertaining and Cagney was charismatic.

    The Big Heat was worth it to see Lee Marvin terrorizing everyone around him.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    Vampires at YBCA

    In August, the YBCA had a vampire series.

    I caught two of the three films in the series.

    Near Dark starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright and Lance Henriksen; with Bill Paxton; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; (1987)
    Vampyr directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; German with subtitles; (1932)

    Originally, the third film in the series was going to be Daughters of Darkness, a well known 1971 film which focuses on the more erotic aspects of the vampire myth. The print was damaged so the film was replaced by Vampire Hookers, a 1978 Filipino production starring John Carradine. I decided to pass.


    Near Dark has achieved cult status since its release. Although Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) did not marry James Cameron until two years after the film was released, the casting seemed like a reunion of Cameron's stock company of actors from the 1980s. The film co-starred Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein who appeared in Cameron's Aliens (1986). Henriksen also appeared in Cameron's The Terminator (1984).

    Near Dark stars Adrian Pasdar as an Oklahoma cowboy who is bitten by vampire Jenny Wright. Adrian Pasdar looked so young in the film. He was 23 at the time. I'm only familiar with Pasdar's work in the television series Judging Amy which was 16 years later. The difference in appearance is amazing. If I hadn't had known it was Pasdar, I don't think I would have recognized him.

    The film mixes genres which probably led to its cult status. Ostensibly a vampire film, most of the action takes place in present day, small-time Oklahoma and Texas. The characters were described as rockabilly in the program notes. I thought they were closer to PWT. The main appeal of the film is intense performances by Henriksen as the leader of the vampire group, Jenette Goldstein as his jealous lover, Bill Paxton as the sadistic vampire and 12 year old Joshua John Miller as the most cold-blooded vampire of them all. Miller's performance could have served as inspiration for Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire (1994).

    By contrast, vampire Jenny Wright is almost normal. Certainly she is the least blood thirsty of the vampires with the exception of newbie Pasdar who cannot overcome his disgust and confusion as to what is happening to him.

    Most of the film is filled with the existential angst of the vampires, particularly Wright and Pasdar who resist their nocturnal urges to varying degrees. Eventually, Pasdar's sister becomes the intended victim and he casts his lot with his human family. What follows is some old-school sunlight-on-vampire-skin fu as Joe Bob would put it. In this telling of the tale, vampire skins burns black when exposed to direct sunlight. Prolonged exposure causes them to explode.

    The film was entertaining. The interplay between Wright and Pasdar took a backseat to the antics of the vampires. A massacre scene in a bar stays in one's memory as does their escape from the police in broad daylight.


    Vampyr was directed by Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer. His film prior to Vampyr was the classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The Passion of Joan of Arc with the iconic images of Maria Falconetti as Joan and the grotesque faces of her judges, is surely one of the greatest films ever made. Vampyr didn't live up to expectations, at least mine. I found the film ponderous and dozed off for a bit. The actual vampire elements of the film are ambiguous which leads to more implied horror than on-screen menacing. Dreyer's film is nothing like F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu which I was perhaps subconsciously expecting and comparing against. Some of the imagery is interesting. I particularly liked the drowning of the vampire's assistant in a grain silo or similar structure. The opening scene featured a man in silhouette with a extremely large scythe. Apparently Dreyer filmed with a guaze three feet in front of the camera to achieve the washed-out or dreamy appearance which characterizes the film.

    Vampyr directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Not Necessarily Noir

    Elliot Lavine was back at the Roxie for two weeks recently. Lavine has, by my count, programmed three successful noir series at the Roxie in the past 18 months. This time, he programmed Not Necessarily Noir. Lavine was a former programmer at the Roxie and seems to be their permanent guest noir programmer. As his valedictory for Not Necessarily Noir, Lavine stated his intention to return to the Roxie next spring with another noir series.

    The ambiguous series title (partially chosen for its alliteration according to Lavine) was more noir than not in my opinion. I certainly appreciate the genre (although some purist claim it is not a genre), I have to admit to showing signs of noir fatigue. Since January 2009, I count seven multi-week film series in the Bay Area with "noir" in the title and a couple others which had strong elements of noir in its programming goals. Rolling Thunder, Thief and Cutter’s Way which appeared in this Roxie series also screened in March 2008 at the Castro Theater as part of their Rolling Thunders: The Second Dark Age series.

    For the past twenty years the Roxie has been presenting a steady diet of pure bred 100% All-American Film Noir. Now comes an exciting new cavalcade of boundary benders that beg the issue of just what constitutes the whole notion of noir—a whopping twenty-four films of mixed genres, spanning the years 1941 through 1999—all with a decidedly bent perspective on the human condition.

    This breathtaking array of dark cinematic diversity offers up a thoroughly mixed bag of styles and genres—from the demented and disquieting horror noir hybrids of the 1940s (The Face Behind The Mask and House Of Horrors) to the cold war shivers induced by 1950s sci-fi noir (Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Creeping Unknown), to cult western noir from the 50s (Day of the Outlaw and Terror in a Texas Town), to 1960s mindbenders (Mirage, The Sadist, Mickey One), to the brutal violence of 70s shockers (Obsession, Last Embrace, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Rolling Thunder) to the post-mod neo-noir of the 80s and beyond (Breathless, Thief, Cutter’s Way, Bad Lieutenant).

    Of the 24 films offered, I watched 14 of the films.

    Not Necessarily Noir
    Mirage starring Gregory Peck; with Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and Kevin McCarthy; scored by Quincy Jones; directed by Edward Dmytryk; (1965)
    13 West Street starring Alan Ladd and Rod Steiger; (1962)
    The Strange One starring Ben Gazzara, George Peppard and Pat Hingle; (1957)
    Something Wild starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker; scored by Aaron Copland; (1961)
    Terror in a Texas Town starring Sterling Hayden; written by Dalton Trumbo (under a pseudonym); (1959)
    Day of the Outlaw starring Robert Ryan and Burl Ives; directed by Andre DeToth; (1959)
    A Town Has Turned to Dust starrring Rod Steiger and William Shatner; written by Rod Serling; directed by John Frankenheimer; originally a Playhouse 90 episode; (1958)
    Last Embrace starring Roy Scheider; with Christopher Walken; directed by Jonathan Demme; (1979)
    Obsession starring Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, and John Lithgow; written by Paul Schrader; directed by Brian De Palma; (1976)
    Romeo is Bleeding starring Gary Oldman and Lena Olin; (1993)
    Breathless starring Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky; (1983)
    Blue Collar starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto; written and directed by Paul Schrader; (1978)
    The Woman Chaser starring Patrick Warburton; (1999)
    Hardcore starring George C. Scott, Peter Boyle and Season Hubley; written and directed by Paul Schrader; (1979)


    Of the ten films I missed were six which I've seen in 35 mm before - Thief, Cutter’s Way, Bad Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel and Abel Ferrara version), Rolling Thunder, The Face Behind The Mask and Mickey One. I've seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel directed version) before but only on television.

    That leaves three films which I missed and had not previously seen: The Creeping Unknown, The Sadist and House Of Horrors.


    My favorite film of the series was Romeo is Bleeding. I didn't recall the film by name but as I started watching it, I realized I had seen the film before. I recall seeing it on television or VHS multiple time. The film features a tour de force performance by Lena Olin as the impossibly sexy and sociopathic assassin Mona Demarkov. Opposite her is Gary Oldman (looking a lot like a young Mickey Rourke) as a crooked cop who is no match for Demarkov. The plot involves the slow death spiral of Oldman's character (who by my count had three names; if you look closely at the wedding invitation in his scrapbook, the name is not Grimaldi). His demise is hastened immeasurably by his encounters with Demarkov. Olin and Oldman have an unmistakable on-screen chemistry but everything in the film eclipsed by Olin's performance.

    Amoral, vicious, sexy, dangerous and irresistibly seductive, the audience watches Olin as she rampages across film like no one else I can remember. She is a femme fatale on cinematic steroids. Even though her performance is flamboyant, Olin reigns in her performance. After killing, seducing, etc. Olin and Oldman have a scene where she discusses her losing her virginity. Olin delivers the lines in such a convincing manner that I forgot I was watching a film. Of course, later Olin venomously tells Oldman that all the sexuality between them was a lie. I can't adequately describe Olin's performance. Her performance frequently pegs the needle on noirish malevolence but I never found myself thinking she was over-the-top. In fact, I couldn't help but notice how I was attracted to Mona Demarkov and just like Oldman's character, she would chew me up and spit me out. Like Peggy Lee said, "But what a lovely way to burn..."

    The supporting cast is solid with Annabella Sciorra as Grimaldi's long suffering wife, Juliette Lewis as his long-suffering mistress, Roy Scheider as soft spoken but menacing Mafia don and the always memorable Michael Wincott as Grimaldi's Mafia liaison.

    Lena Olin in Romeo is Bleeding


    13 West Street was a nice find. The movie stars Alan Ladd, in his penultimate film performance, as a victim of a beating at the hands of juvenile delinquents. The crime leaves him shaken but when the punks start threatening his wife, he begins to investigate and interrogate the suspects himself at the consternation of Rod Steiger who plays the police detective.

    Ladd never quite reaches Death Wish depths but he does lose perspective and his much of his self-control as he becomes obsessed with catching the gang. Steiger plays his part as cool cop with a soothing voice who tries talk Ladd down from his increasingly frenzied efforts.


    A Town Has Turned to Dust was not a movie but an episode of the television anthology series Playhouse 90. I've heard about this specific episode for years as it helped to establish his career. In the episode (which appears to be telecast live), Shatner plays a racist shopkeeper who leads a lynch mob. Rod Steiger plays the town sheriff who attempts to protect his prisoner from the crazed crowd. Having seen every Star Trek episode (multiple times), I immediately recognized Shatner's performance as textbook Shatner. Rage and fear were the emotions Shatner was able to the final episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk's body is inhabited by a psychotic woman. We know this because Shatner reinterprets his performance as Kirk to show more rage & fear.

    Enough of my closet Trekkie predilections, Shatner was adequate as the town bully and at that juncture of his career, the performance must have seem revelatory. Steiger plays the sheriff as an alcoholic and the action takes place during a summer drought so Steiger plays the sheriff as a sweaty alcoholic. He's a bit of a coward and has a strong sense of self-loathing. We find out later the backstory of Steiger's character.


    Something Wild starring Carroll Baker was an odd story about a rape victim. Carroll Baker was married to director Jack Garfein at the time of the filming. Baker plays Mary Ann Robinson, a college student in New York. She is raped one night but hides the incident from her parents. She begins to exhibit severe post-traumatic stress disorder. She runs away from her middle class home to live in a seedy tenement building. She drops out of school to work at a five and dime where the other workers mistake her distant behavior as unfriendliness. Pushed to the point of suicide, Robinson is moments from jumping off the Manhattan Bridge when Mike (Ralph Meeker) happens upon and saves her. He takes her back to his small basement apartment to recuperate. The film takes an unexpected turn as Robinson's white knight soon become her captor. Mike refuses to let Mary Ann leave and keeps her locked in the apartment when he leaves for work. Months go by as Mary Ann falls into a depression. Interestingly, Mary Ann seems to regain some of her spirit while under confinement. Although distressed, Robinson never attempts suicide while locked up.

    Mike, who clearly has alcohol and emotional problems, inadvertently (or is it?) leaves the door unlocked one day and Mary Ann makes her escape. After receiving a less than rousing response from her mother, Robinson incredibly decides to return to Mike. The climax of the film finds Mike & Mary Ann married and living in the basement apartment. They appear happy as they are hosting a social gathering. Mary Ann's mother has tracked her down (or maybe Mary Ann sent her the address). The point is that Mary Ann rebuffs her mother's pleas to return to her previous life and chooses to stay with Mike.

    The ending left me shaking my head. How likely is that marriage to be successful? The husband is a maladjusted kidnapper and the wife is a rape and kidnap victim who appears to have not sought any treatment. Did I mention that Mary Ann kicked Mike's eye out when he drunk? I suppose the ending was supposed to be the triumph of the marginalized over their circumstances. My cynical nature led me to internally state that the couple would be divorced in two years and lucky if both of them were still ambulatory and free of incarceration.

    Despite the ending, for most of the film Baker was impressive as the victim if not a little predictable and one-dimensional. However, the plot kept taking unexpected turns that allowed for Baker's performance to adapt to the situation her character was in. That added some depth to Baker's performance which combined with the unusual kept me interested up until the end.


    There were some misfires in the festival. I recall seeing the remake of Breathless as a teenager. At the time, I had not seen the original. I recall the film was universally panned but having watched the 50th anniversary reissue of the original Breathless, I wanted to make the comparison.

    I can confirm that the 1983 version of Breathless is horrible but yet memorable. First, whereas Jean-Paul Belmondo was full of bravado and a bit of a poseur, Richard Gere behaves like a buffoon and acts like Belmondo's mentally retarded brother with ADHD. Valerie Kaprisky, in the Jean Seberg role, is less capricious than Seberg's character. Kaprisky portrays the character with more sexuality and confusion.

    Is the film unfairly criticized for not being the orignal? Perhaps. I last saw the film over 20 years ago and I recalled a scene where Richard Gere gets into the shower with Kaprisky. They frolic in the shower with the imprint of Kaprisky's feet against the shower door. All this is set to the soundtrack of Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds. If I can recall that one scene 20 years later, the director (Jim McBride) and actors must have been doing something right. However, a memorable scene is not the same as a great or even enjoyable movie. If the film was a little bit worse, it would enter the realm of Showgirls - so bad it's good.

    The film really boils down to Gere making a spectacle of himself. He and/or McBridge must of thought his fidgeting and singing to himself was evocative of youthful angst and confusion. It was so unsophisticated as to draw attention away from the plot and detract from Gere's performance.

    The Woman Chaser starred Patrick Warburton whose voice is to be envied. Deep and full of gravitas but yet able to convey sarcasm, Warburton is known for his roles as Joe on The Family Guy and Puddy on Seinfeld. I was impressed with performance in Scream 3 as the arrogant detective who refers to Dewey (David Arquette's character) as Dew Drop.

    The Woman Chaser was Warburton's film immediately before Scream 3. Partly a spoof on a noir conventions and partly a surreal illusion, the film serves as a vehicle for Warburton to shine as the amoral lead character - Richard Hudson, a used car salesman who sleeps with a number of women including his step-sister and a Salvation Army matron. Hudson's passion is to make a film about a trucker who runs over a girl. The scene where Warburton pitches the synopsis is classic. Actually, the film consists of many memorable scenes: Hudson's implied incestuous relationship with his mother including a ballet dance scene and Hudson's repeated manipulation of the Salvation Army woman. The film is presented in beautiful black and white (which was post-processed) and nails the fashion of Los Angeles in the 1960. It reminded me a little of Mad Men in that regard.

    By the end, I found the film to be tedious. It would have been better suited as a short film (perhaps 30 to 50 minutes), in my opinion. I've heard of this film for a long time so I was anxious to watch it but my expectations were not met.

    Last Embrace, Obsession, Blue Collar and Hardcore were flawed movies from the 1970s. I enjoyed parts of them but couldn't full commit to any of them. John Lithgow was memorable in Obsession and the feverish final embrace between Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold was iconic if not disappointing within the context of the film. Last Embrace featured a small scene with prototypical Christopher Walken before he became famous for being Christopher Walken. Blue Collar was the grittiest of the three and Richard Pryor surprised me by his performance but Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto equal him. I learned quite a bit of Hardcore is all about Calvinism and it's interesting to George C. Scott dressed in loud 1970's shirts but Season Hubley as the prostitute steals the show. The overly obvious references to The Searchers became tiresome.

    Terror in a Texas Town and Day of the Outlaw were presented a double feature. Terror in a Texas Town featured Sterling Hayden with a Scandinavian accent and was very similar to High Noon. We are treated to an unusual showdown between a one-armed gunfighter (with two guns on his gunbelt) vs. a whaler with a harpoon! The backstory of the film was more interesting than the film. Nedrick Young, who played the one-armed gunfighter, cowrote the screenplay but didn't receive credit because he had been blacklisted. The prolific Dalton Trumbo also contributed but was fronted in the credit by Ben Perry. Finally, Sterling Hayden famously "named names" but subsequently repudiated his actions and attempted to atone for them.

    Day of the Outlaw was less allegorical. Filmed in Wyoming in the winter, it doesn't look like a typical Western. Robert Ryan played a tough cowboy who is on the verge of a showdown with a man he was cuckolding. At the moment they are about to draw their weapons (nicely filmed with a rolling bottle of whiskey), Burl Ives and his gang arrive. Ives was a military man who was involved in a infamous massacre. Now he is the leader of a criminal gang although he imposes military-style discipline to keep his men in check. Ives and his men terrorize the town for the rest of the film although they are unable to bully Robert Ryan.

    Terror in a Texas Town and Day of the Outlaw were two of the more enjoyable entries in the series. Strong performances by the leading men are primarily responsible. I always though Sterling Hayden and Robert Ryan resembled each other a bit. Not so much a direct physical similarity but rather their screen personae.

    Mirage was an unabashed tribute to Hitchcock with nice performances by Gregory Peck, Walter Matthau and George Kennedy. The Strange One was a Ben Gazzara vehicle. He played a manipulative military academy student who terrorizes his classmates. Having seen this film and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), I wonder what happened to Gazzara between those two roles and Road House (1989).


    Overall, Not Necessarily Noir was hit and miss which isn't different from any film festival. I thought Lavine programmed more misses (perhaps near hits is more accurate) than his previous efforts at the Roxie. Regardless, I am grateful that Lavine has a screen to program. His unearthing of The Strange One and
    Something Wild are reasons enough to support his efforts.

    For reasons I am not aware of, the Roxie didn't offer festival or series passes for Not Necessarily Noir. I missed five days so I'm not sure if it would have been cost effective to get a pass but the absence of the offering gives me pause.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    The Bitter Tea of General Yen

    The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a film which I've long wanted to see. An early Frank Capra work, the film has become hotly debated. Does it perpetuate Asian stereotypes or did it portray the titular protagonist as a complex and fully developed character. After missing it a few times in the past few years at the PFA and Stanford, I caught the film at the Castro in August.

    The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther; directed by Frank Capra; (1933)


    It wasn't until last year's Early Capra series at the PFA that I learned that Stanwyck & Capra were romantically involved. I have read differing opinions on Stanwyck's sexuality but men were most certainly part of her repertoire. Bitter Tea has an added dimension if the director and leading lady are romantically involved. I associate Stanwyck in the early 1930s with a number of pre-code films that would later be censored. The films include Night Nurse and Baby Face. In Bitter Tea, Stanwyck's character is more straight-laced as she is engaged to a Christian missionary in China.

    What sets The Bitter Tea of General Yen apart is the inter-racial romance between Stanwyck's Megan Davis and General Yen (Nils Asther). The film was banned in several countries for depicting miscegenation even though Asther was in yellowface and their characters never consummated their relationship.

    More provocative is Davis' attraction to the Chinese warlord which is manifested in a feverish dream sequence. In the dream, Davis is menaced by Yen whose face is distorted by lupine features. The yellow menace is dispatched by a masked man who is then revealed to be none other than General Yen himself. Davis is simultaneously frightened and attracted to Yen.

    Stanwyck and Asther prove capable in their roles. At least, Asther played General Yen as a man of power without a minimum of racial stereotype. Stanwyck was a little too subdued as the American put in harms way by her own folly and later, General Yen's desires. Her sexual desires were always under the surface but the inner turmoil is too muted.

    The standout in the film is Toshia Mori as Yen's concubine, Mah-Li. Duplicitous and seductive, Mah-Li is like a cobra - beautiful but potentially fatal. Mah-Li is less evil than a product of the culture she comes from. Forced to play her role as the warlord's concubine, she decides to play the game as best she can. Originally intended for Anna May Wong, Capra cast Mori in what turned out to be her most famous role. Mori, a Kyoto born/American raised actress, has no credits in IMDB after 1937. What happened to her? She lived until 1995. Whatever the story is, her absence from the silver screen was our loss.

    However, in one film at least, Mori shines brightest. The Bitter Tea of General Yen is not Capra-esque. In fact, it reminds me more of a pair of Josef von Sternberg film - Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture. In all three films, the Asian women are portrayed as complex (if not distasteful by Western standards) characters. There is also a scene where Stanwyck is wearing an evening gown and the overhead lights reflect off the sequins in a blinding glitter. I'm certain I've seen von Sternberg film Marlene Dietrich in a similar manner.

    So you could package The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture into series depicting China in the 1930s or at least Western views of China in the period. However, the three films rise above the typical level of Asian stereotypes depicted in films of the period despite engaging in a modest amount of these very stereotypes. Besides, films made in the 1930s cannot be judged on the standards of the 2010s. In addition, Capra and von Sternberg are acknowledged masters of their craft and the skills are clearly on display in these films.

    Actress Toshia Mori