Guédiguian’s French Resistance, Fuller’s America and Early Corman – DVDs of the Week
Army of Crime (Kino Lorber)
Don’t let the title throw you. The heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s based-on-a-true-story French war drama are not The Dirty Dozen unleashed on the Nazis but a remarkably effective resistance cell formed of French Jews, communists and immigrants—the very “undesirables” targeted by the Nazis for the camps. Guédiguian’s previous films—at least ones I’ve had the good fortune to see—have been small dramas about communities of immigrants, underemployed and outcasts that pull together and to maintain their identities. Army of Crime offers a much bigger canvas—and a setting with profound resonance—for that theme to play out, and Guédiguian invites members of his stock company to fill out major roles.
Simon Abkarian is the Armenian poet, Communist and pacifist who leaves a concentration camp with a lie and takes up arms to lead a team of members not known for following orders, Virginie Ledoyen his devoted wife and partner and Robinson Stévenin and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet the reckless but passionate daredevil partisans under his command. Their stories play out slowly, the better to let the oppressive culture of occupied Paris (and of the widespread collaboration of police who support the racial policies, if not the authoritarian structure, of the Nazis occupation) sink in while sowing the tensions between the Communist leaders of the resistance and the non-Communist soldiers who fight for their own reasons: vengeance, defiance, love of country and the simple act of self-preservation under a regime dedicated to eradicating their existence. By the time the unit forms, you are ready for them to take the offensive, even as we know how it ends: the film opens with a spoken memorial to their sacrifice.
Guédiguian regular Ariane Ascaride has as a small but palpable role as a maternal supporter who pretends not to understand the danger to her son and Jean-Pierre Darroussin (another familiar Guédiguian face) is a French detective who gets a promotion for his stellar work in arresting partisans and sees firsthand how his fellow Frenchman are tortured for information. What looks like the beginnings of a transformation, however, turns into a wrenching portrait of racial politics trumping national identity… or human identity, for that matter. In the process, Guédiguian punctures a lot of myths about the face—and the motives—of the French resistance.
Features interviews with director Guédiguian and stars Simon Abkarian and Virginie Ledoyen. In French (with some German) with English subtitles.
Shock Corridor / The Naked Kiss (Criterion)
It’s easy to see why the French New Wave directors loved Sam Fuller so. A street intellectual with the grammar of a tabloid newsman, Fuller made his points about America in slogans and headlines punctuating pulp melodramas and action films. His desire was to jolt his audience, and these films are Fuller at his most jagged.
Shock Corridor (1963) sends investigative reporter Peter Breck undercover in an insane asylum where he finds a microcosm of America among the catatonic inmates, escaping their sins and traumas through delusion. It’s psychodrama at its most lurid and confrontational; Fuller knows exactly what he’s doing when he has African-American actor Hari Rhodes don a pointed Klan mask and preach white supremacy (“America for Americans!”) to a 1963 movie audience. And he’s just as knowing when he sets a veritable girl-gang of “nymphomaniacs” upon Breck, a bizarro bit of sexlopitation turned into a genuine assault. It’s almost formula the way his spotlight inmates calm into clarity and reveal their trauma in spiels of exposition, yet some scenes are so vividly mad that it takes the film out of its dime store psycho-analysis and into cinematic genius. The hurricane in the corridor is a nightmare sequence turned first-person ordeal hammered home with a startling close-up of Breck’s screaming face, shot from such a vertiginous angle from below that it throws the entire (already unstable) film right off its axis. Meanwhile, stripper Constance Towers plays Breck’s girlfriend posing as his sister (part of his cover) and delivers one of the most unnatural stripteases in the movies, like an art film deconstruction of a strip. Most of the film is like that, teetering between pulp excess and art film expressionism.
The Naked Kiss (1964) opens with Constance Towers battering the camera point blank before her wig slips off to reveal a startling image and just gets stranger from there. The angry hooker busses into a small town, becomes nurse in the children’s ward of a hospital while local cop Anthony Eisley tries to force her out of town (immediately after sleeping with her) and ends up wooed by local millionaire Michael Dante, a cool sophisticate with a perverse secret. Fuller holds back his Kino-fist for all but a few brief scenes—the jagged opening, the fantasy that transports Towers to the canals of Venice, the discreet revelation of Bunny in Dante’s mansion and the dislocated cutting that throws the scene so off-balance it’s like we’ve had the world pulled out from under us. An audacious mix of cynicism, sleaze, sentimental gooeyness and social commentary, it’s bizarre and at times an assault on the senses (the children’s choir is enough to make you run from the room screaming) but there’s nothing else like it. Fuller gives us an ugly, tawdry America hiding its guilt under a surface of normalcy. These two aggressively crude and skewed late Fuller films are America’s pulp poet at his most passionately outrageous.
Both films were early Criterion DVD releases. They’ve been newly remastered for the new DVD edition and Blu-ray debut and look superb. Shock Corridor features Adam Simon’s affectionate 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Robbins and Jim Jarmusch paying tribute to Fuller and his films, and The Naked Kiss features excerpts from a 1983 episode of The South Bank Show dedicated to Fuller and two archival interviews with Fuller from French TV. Both include in-depth original interviews with actress Constance Towers conducted by Charles Dennis in 2007 and booklets with essays and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography.
Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: Sci-Fi Classics Triple-Feature (Attack of the Crab Monsters / Not of This Earth (1957) / War of the Satellites) (Shout! Factory)
Shout! Factory has been rolling out a lot of films under the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” banner in the past year or so, but this is the first collection to feature films that the legendary producer actually directed himself. This triple feature dips into the ultra-low-budget films of the fifties he turned out with regularity for the drive-in and second-feature market. There isn’t a film that runs over 70 minutes in the bunch, and the shortest is barely more than an hour.
The 1957 Attack of the Crab Monsters, starring Russell Johnson as an engineer turned action hero and a giant mutant crab with psychic powers, is a bizarre entry in the post-atomic giant creature features with a twist of ghost story. As a team of scientists wade ashore (there isn’t a boat to be seen, just another budgetary reality) the beach of a South Pacific island to test for radiation in the wake of atomic bomb tests, the truly weird looking crab monster of the title (singular, not plural) devours a couple of scientists (as well a good chunk of the beach) and absorbs their minds as well as their flesh. Soon he’s sending telepathic messages in the voices of the dead scientists to lure the rest of team into his claws. The creature effects are pretty darn cheesy but better than the budget would suggest and the Charles Griffith script keeps things moving, if not always engaging.
The original 1957 Not of This Earth, an alien invasion film with dimensional portals and cold-blooded vampirism, adds an eerie dimension to the otherwise drab sets and off-the-cuff location shooting, thanks in part to photography by Hollywood legend John Mescall (Bride of Frankenstein and The Black Cat). Beverly Garland helps bring a little class to the film as a nurse who knows the score and knows how juggle multiple suitors and Jonathan Haze (nebbish star of the original The Little Shop of Horrors) is the streetwise Man Friday to the mysterious boss (Paul Johnson), an alien who hides his glowing eyes behind dark glasses and needs human blood to survive. Somehow Corman makes it all work, even the purely expositional dialogue scenes. Morgan Jones and William Roerick are both fairly colorless as Garland’s dueling suitors but she makes up for it with a knowing authority and a feeling that she’s having fun playing them off one another, especially when she turns a date into a threesome to discuss the strange case of the mysterious patient. And I give credit to Corman for making those scenes, of not actually sizzle, at least spark a little.
Corman regular Dick Miller takes a rare lead in the 1958 War of the Satellites, which pits American astronauts against aliens determined to keep humans from sending rockets into space. When mission after manned mission ends in destruction when the rockets collide with an invisible force field around the Earth, one final mission is planned to examine the net, but the aliens put a spy on board (by taking over the body of a dead scientist) to sabotage the mission. The actors spend most of their time running around the minimalist sets and empty hallways of a rocket interior that looks more like a small office park. But at least Miller is around to energize what action there is. This is the only film in the set not scripted by Griffith and his B-movie sensibility is missed, though Corman still manages to keep the film bouncing through the cut-rate sets and primitive space effects, accomplished with what look like repurposed toys.
All three features are mastered from clean, well-preserved prints and look remarkably good for low-budget productions made outside the studio system. The earlier films are widescreen and Satellites is Academy ration (1.33:1) and mastered from a British theatrical print. The two-disc set features commentary on the first two films by film historians Tom Weaver, John Brunas and Mike Brunas, plus the 25-minute interview featurette “A Salute to Roger Corman,” with Corman “graduates” Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda, George Hickenlooper and Harry Dean Stanton (among others) discussing Corman’s career as a producer and a collection of 25 Corman trailers.