DVD: Classic DeMille, Psychedelic Sexploitation, and the French Disconnection

25 April, 2012 (14:46) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The Buccaneer (1938) (Olive)

This first version of the historical adventure / pirate movie (it was remade in 1958 by Anthony Quinn) stars Fredric March as Jean Lafitt, the flamboyant French-born privateer (he preferred the term over pirate) who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812.

The American melting pot of 1814

Cecil B. DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but he also has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles, making Lafitte both a sly scoundrel with a brazen defiance of authority and a patriot who sides with the Americans against the British even though they have put a price on his head. March’s Lafitte may have one of the worst French accents ever heard on screen, but he is a commanding and charismatic leader who rouses his men to the American cause even after they have been double-crossed by the Louisiana Governor. The obligatory romantic subplot has Lafitte courting a high society belle while a cute Dutch girl (Franciska Gaal) moons over Lafitte after he rescues her from a rogue pirate who defies orders and attacks an American ship, a breach that Lafitte ultimately must take responsibility for.

The rest is a paean to the multicultural collection of characters who make up the American melting pot, including Akim Tamiroff’s lovable, loyal rogue of a second-in-command to Lafitte and Walter Brennan as Jackson’s buckskin-clad aide-de-camp. DeMille’s films had a tendency to get bloated and starchy as his budgets and scope grew but this has a lively energy to it, thanks to a plot full of betrayals and battles, a cast of larger-than-life characters (including Hugh Sothern as a hearty, earthy Jackson), and a snappy script full of playful dialogue. It even, dramatic license and romantic fictions aside, keeps to the broad strokes of history. All of which makes for one of DeMille’s more rousing productions. The print shows some wear, mostly light vertical scratches, but no serious damage, and the sound is fine.

Marianne Faithfull is naked under leather

Girl on a Motorcycle (Kino/Redemption)

A very sixties portrayal of one woman’s sexual liberation. Girl on a Motorcycle could be the mod Euro answer to Easy Rider with a sexy young Marianne Faithfull in the saddle. The film was released in the U.S. under the title Naked Under Leather, which is not particularly poetic but is accurate: she climbs naked from the marriage bed and dons the skin-tight leather bodysuit in the opening scene. As she rides her Harley Davidson Electra Glide from her home in France, where she lives with her devoted but dull and unadventurous schoolteacher husband (Roger Mutton), across the border to visit her lover (Alain Delon), a seductive professor of literature who gave her the bike as a wedding gift, her story plays out in a succession of flashbacks, sexual fantasies, and kitschy psychedelic imagery. Those acid-drenched neon video shades of purple and orange and green take over whenever she makes love with Delon, which has the unintended effect of turning sex into a bad psychedelic trip. Stream-of-consciousness narration fills in the rest of her sexual vision quest across the border of conformity. Faithfull is not much of an actress but she is a marvelous presence, not classically pretty yet quite beautiful, slipping between coquettish girl and experienced woman in a matter of seconds.

It’s less Summer of Love than Season of Lust and any sense of liberation is limited to her sexual horizons, and even there it’s all a matter of obsession and addiction to the elegantly arrogant and intellectually macho Delon, who just kicks back and waits for her to come calling. Jack Cardiff, always more expressive as a cinematographer than a director, gives in to the gimmicks (at one point nesting a flashback within a flashback) without embracing the possibilities or making any more of it than psychedelic sexploitation on a growling symbol of rebellion and sexual freedom. Like so many films from this psychedelic wave, it can’t even embrace to her rebellion in the end. I do, however, get a kick out of the safe-riding lessons from Delon. Whenever Faithful gives in to recklessness on the road, her lover’s voice rings out a scolding. DVD and Blu-ray, both featuring commentary by director Jack Cardiff.

Hit! (Olive)

Billy Dee Williams plays a rogue American agent who puts together a civilian strike team with personal stakes in the war on heroine in this 1973 action thriller. It’s like an urban The Dirty Dozen reworking of The French Connection, complete with cross-cutting between the detective work and training stateside and the workings of the drug trade in Marseilles. The disc cover art—which features a very seventies Williams armed with a bazooka and photoshopped in front of a generic explosion—might evoke thoughts of blaxploitation, but in fact it’s a conventional version of the mainstream crime caper with a rare African-American lead, which is the film’s only memorable accomplishment.

Richard Pryor, better known as a boundary-pushing comedian than an actor at the time, gets second billing as a former Navy engineer who signs on to revenge his dead wife and he seems to ad-lib most of his rather small part, and Gwen Welles brings a sad resignation to her role as a high end prostitute with heroine addiction, almost making something resonant out of an otherwise undistinguished character. That’s par for this film, directed without any distinction or commitment by Sidney J. Fury on location in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Marseilles. He doesn’t bother explaining how this multi-cultural team ships out of Seattle by tugboat and end up in Marseilles in no time at all, and in the big finale he’s more concerned with timing of the hit-squad finale than building anything resembling tension or surprise. The band of oddballs and misfits is filled out by Warren J. Kemmerling as a cranky New York cop, Paul Hampton as a college professor, Janet Brandt and Sid Melton as an old Jewish couple who are rather unsettlingly adept at close-quarters murder. Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

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