“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 3]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Continued from “Part 2” here.

How do you feel about writing these low-budget films? Do you see advantages in it, or are you hungry for millions of dollars per budget?

If I had millions of dollars I’d probably make millions of small films. Part of it is what I’m good at. I’m not real interested in being a field-marshal. I recently wrote a thing that isn’t going to get made because of budget reasons, that Steven Spielberg was going to produce. And he’s really good at having a huge project and is really a good organizer, and he’d probably be a good administrator—not a great politician but a good administrator of huge programs, because the things get made and things happen. I’m not interested in that or real good at that. The things that I want to do can be done more cheaply, and might as well be done more cheaply. It goes against my grain to see money that should be going on the screen going up in overhead and the cocaine budget.

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“I don’t like those hard goodbyes” – Strother Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

Strother Martin thought the folks from the Seattle Film Society wanted to meet him just because he had done some jobs of work for Sam Peckinpah and they had had Sam to tea a year or so earlier. Not that that gave him any trouble. Like any other veteran character actor he had long since got used to being the face and voice that people marked immediately without being able to attach a name. Unlike many other character actors, he had been wrong on that point for quite a few years—at the very least, since late 1967, when filmgoers first heard the line “What we have here is failure to communicate” out of the mouth of the pusselgutted chain-gang overseer in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke. Plenty of people, not just film-society types, could be relied on to look right fond whenever the name Strother Martin was dropped, and say “Oh yeah, I like him, he’s always good.”

Martin1edit
Strother Martin in Seattle in 1979 (photo by Tom Keogh, scanned from Movietone News 66-67)

The Martins were having dinner with two other cast members, Marjorie Bennett and Meg Wylie, who Joined us for the first part of our chat in an improvised semi-private diningroom. Bennett, especially familiar for her work in Robert Aldrich pictures (she and Martin had both appeared in one-scene roles in Kiss Me Deadly; her son from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Victor Buono, was out bulking in the lobby a few yards away), held forth in her best sinister-pixie style on everything from Rudolph Valentino to the fireweed-honey-from-the-sky ritual at Snoqualmie Falls Lodge. The rest of the company delightedly deferred to her. Then, after she had retired for the evening, Martin settled down to talk about, well, Sam Peckinpah, he thought, but we insisted we were interested in Strother Martin, too.

The Strother Martin we met was a fellow markedly different from the variously desperate, deranged, and depraved characters he had so often essayed. Mostly he spoke in soft, gracious tones, with a particularity of reference and inflection consistent with the classical tastes and sensibility he frequently evidenced. Every once in a while, though, when an anecdote required the quotation of a line from The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that familiar backwoodsy twang cut the air. (He was particularly proud of the appreciative reception a Harlem moviehouse audience had given his pronunciation of “pussy” while cussing out the hockey team in Slap Shot.) From time to time he lit a cigarette and got about two puffs out of it before Mrs. Martin quietly reached across and stubbed it out.

That was in March 1979. A year later, Strother Martin appeared at a Filmex program, “Characters,” devoted to the work of people like him; the entirety of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid performance was screened. One hoped that Martin and those other colleagues present—Richard Loo was a few seats away—would be called up to take their bows. It didn’t happen. They signed a few autographs. Within months, both men had passed away.

The following remarks were recorded and transcribed by Tom Keogh and Lesley Link. As the tape started to roll, Martin was talking about an unlikely director….

…I would like to own the film on the life of Delius that Ken Russell did for the BBC? Did you see that? It was done on the PBS stations. Max Adrian played Delius. It’s Ken Russell’s best film, and it’s about one of my favorite subjects. It’s a great film; it’s better than Women in Love. I read once that Glenda Jackson said it was his best film. Such a wonderful biography. He’s meddled with a lot of composers and he’s made me very angry. I didn’t go to see “Tchaikovsky” [The Music Lovers] and I was terribly disappointed in the Mahler film, I just hated it. But I admire his images and his imagination.

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Grizzly Man: The Overwhelming Indifference Of Nature

It’s easy to see why Werner Herzog was so fascinated by Timothy Treadwell, the former beach bum turned self-made wildlife activist and grizzly bear guardian who spent thirteen summers living amidst the grizzly bears of the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska until he, along with his girlfriend and traveling partner, Amie Huguenard, was mauled, killed, and devoured by his beloved cause.

Timothy Treadwell: Grizzly Adams as new age surfer dude
Timothy Treadwell: Grizzly Adams as new age surfer dude

As his documentary Grizzly Man suggests, Treadwell saw himself as a new-age Grizzly Adams with a video camera and a quest to save the habitat from humanity. He could be a real life folk version of the dreamers from Herzog’s dramas, less manic and not as prone to epic gestures but no less obsessed. Treadwell relentlessly videotaped his sojourns and the magnificent footage that he left behind captures a serenity and savagery of the wilds at times reminiscent of Herzog’s best films.

But the footage also serves his self-made mythological identity—”the lone guardian of the grizzly”—by constantly and pointedly placing himself in every shot, like the host of a non-existent nature show/nature reality series. His footage is accompanied by grandiose stream-of-consciousness running commentary, a mix of naturist idealism, poetic romanticism and a kiddie-show host blissing out on the wonders of mother nature. He speaks of the isolation of his solo forays into the wilds, even though he was accompanied and assisted by female partners/girlfriends on practically every trip, and is careful to never mention their presence, let alone allow them to share credit in his adventure. Amie, the girlfriend who was killed with Treadwell, is only glimpsed only twice in the background of footage Treadwell left behind, and even there is barely present.

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Losing Focus: Three Herzog Shorts – The Dark Glow of the Mountains, The Ballad of the Little Soldier, Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984), suffers from limitations imposed by its subject: the effort of two daredevil climbers to scale two difficult mountains back-to-back, without a break in between. They describe this as something never done before and much more dangerous than climbing one peak. The aesthetic problem, though, is that the available footage was evidently limited to what Herzog shot in conjunction with interviews, and there is no real visual evidence of danger or drama.

Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains
Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains

The interviews are colorful enough, in their way. One climber boasts that, thanks to frostbite on previous climbs, he is down to four toes; his colleague, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, admits to having all ten, but does note [hopefully?] that, with the difficult project they are undertaking, that could change. Aside from the unique and unprecedented nature of the stunt, and its danger, neither climber cites any particular reason for doing it. The more seasoned of the two—the one with four toes—concedes that he climbs compulsively, and gravitates toward doing new things; unless I’m missing something, that is another way of saying he does it to keep from getting bored. This is quite a jarring contrast to the ski jumping in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), which Herzog transformed into a mystical pursuit of the transcendent and the poetic. It seems odd to find Herzog, a decade later, celebrating the things mountain climbers do to ward off boredom. And without climbing footage, the film is inert; even the announcement that they have successfully climbed the second mountain registers as curiously flat, almost anti-climactic.

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On Staring Into the Camera: Aguirre and Bears

(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea.)

Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.

aguirre2
Aguirre, the Wrath of God

And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.

That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.

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Rescue Dawn: The Challenge of the Extraordinary

When I first saw Rescue Dawn—in fact, when I saw the preview trailer—I said to myself, Aha! After a whole generation, here’s another green film from Werner Herzog.

Steve Zahn and Christian Bale: lost in the jungle
Steve Zahn and Christian Bale: lost in the jungle

Herzog has made a lot of remarkable films. But so long is the reach of Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, and so profound their visual stamp, that it is impossible not to see Rescue Dawn as their cousin—perhaps even their completion. Here again is the green of the jungle, both inviting and forbidding, both enchanting and deadly. Here again is the stubborn determination of a half-mad man not to be beaten by nature at its rawest and most implacable. Here again is civilization and its power politics ebbing away to insignificance in the face of a single man’s grandiose vision and relentless will to win.

Werner Herzog has always been interested in men like this. It’s shallow to say that he has outgrown or otherwise abandoned the vision of his celebrated earlier films (particularly the Kinski films), with their obsessive dwelling—literal or metaphoric—on German culture, German politics, German guilt. Whether it’s Don Lope de Aguirre or Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald or Timothy Treadwell or Dieter Dengler, and whether the film is fiction, documentary, or adaptation, Herzog remains committed to an exploration of the powerful, charismatic personality, and its tug of war with the world.

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Fitzcarraldo: The Idea Was a Bold One

[Originally published in The Informer, January 1983]

“The project fell through, but the idea was a bold one.” The story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald’s life—perhaps his epitaph—is writ large very near the beginning of Fitzcarraldo, by his own loving Molly. Fitzcarraldo is in a recursive nightmare: To bring opera to Iquitos, he must have money; to get money, he must produce rubber; to produce rubber, he must have land; to do that, he must borrow money, buy a ship, and show some evidence of successful exploitation in a few months’ time; and to do that, it turns out, he has to haul a ship over a mountain. The danger of this kind of recursion, of course, is that the means continually threaten to become the end; and that is finally exactly what happens. Fitzcarraldo never loses sight of his goal, never loses his enthusiasm for the project; but he ends up settling for a one-night stand rather than a functioning opera house.

Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again
Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again

Through it all, Fitzcarraldo keeps his humor; and Klaus Kinski’s performance, though not his best, is easily his most likeable. For all his lowering Teutonicism, he manages an impish Irishman’s twinkling grin that is utterly winning. One has to tell him—as does another character in the film—”You’re a strange bird, but I must say I like you.” That’s Don Aquilino, a rich exploiter of the jungle, bored with his money, like the others, but unwilling to use it to back Fitzcarraldo’s venture—like, one imagines, so many potential backers for the films of one Werner Herzog.

It’s tired by now to point out the Herzog-Fitzcarraldo analogy, but it’s foolish to ignore it. “Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald is moving against the Amazon!” Keep Reading

Stroszek

Even when he made Stroszek (1978), Herzog’s work had reflected parallel interests in documentary and narrative fiction forms. The sublime Fata Morgana (1971) (despite Herzog’s preposterous claim that it is a sci-fi film about an intergalactic war) and the wonderfully perverse Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), almost as much as the explicitly documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and several documentary shorts, clearly came from the documentary tradition. Even ostensibly fiction films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had a kind of documentary feel (the wondrous shots of the natural world in Aguirre, the only-half-mocking “case history” conclusion of Kaspar).

Bruno S
Bruno S

Stroszek marked a decisive, if temporary, move toward the narrative mainstream, a road movie no less (years later, in Rescue Dawn [2006], when Herzog had been largely focusing on documentaries, he returned to genre film-making, with a POW escape movie, producing decidedly conventional results). German ex-con Bruno Stroszek (played by Bruno S, the schizophrenic who had played Kaspar Hauser) joins with two friends and goes to Wisconsin to pursue the American dream. The group gradually disintegrates, Bruno’s piece of the American dream, his mobile home, is repossessed and he takes to the road.

Herzog uses the basic outline, of people on a common quest that goes sour, to explore, as ever, mankind confronting a universe that is indifferent or actively hostile to human aspirations. From its opening shot, of prison bars, to the final image of the cosmic stupidity of a dancing chicken, tightly framed by a window and bathed in the same orange light used in the early prison sequence, a sense of futility pervades the film.

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Heart of Glass

Werner Herzog seemed to court risks, artistic and personal. Heart of Glass (1976), may be his most ambitious, stylized, and explicitly allegorical film, and seems in retrospect to mark the point where his relentless risk-taking overreached his limits. Heart of Glass in conventional terms is a failure, ponderous, stilted, overwhelmingly pretentious, but one that still somehow seems achingly close to greatness.

Heart of Glass
Heart of Glass

The images in the opening sequence—cows grazing in early morning mist while a nearby man sits lost in thought, water cascading over a falls (shown through a gauze filter)—fuse poetically into an overwhelming, ultimately indescribable visionary experience. Heart‘s ending, almost as arresting, somehow lacks the emotional resonance of the opening, perhaps because of the oddly unsatisfying quality of much of what we see between the two sequences. And a measure of the film’s failure is the way these two sequences seem curiously unconnected, aesthetically, emotionally, or narratively, to the story they frame.

Somewhere in Heart of Glass is a story, but its contours and logic are so murky that it’s almost impossible to find. Herzog’s characters are often, as here, questing for something. Usually, though, the metaphysical dimensions of their quests are suggested in mundane activities: as a dwarf tries to climb onto a bed where an eager woman awaits him (Even Dwarfs Started Small, 1970) or a trio of Germans tries to make themselves a home in Wisconsin (Stroszek, 1978),their frustrations and failures gradually take on universality; the “meaning” emerges from the material. But in Heart the characters’ quest—to recover a lost formula for making beautiful glass—is presented in such self-consciously symbolic terms that it’s obvious what they’re “really” after is something big, like “transcendence” or even the “meaning of life.” In case anyone misses this, a “prophet” wanders through the film, uttering profundities and even, in one ponderous scene, predicting World War I and the rise of Hitler in heavy-handedly symbolic terms. Give him pancake make-up, black robes and a chessboard, and he could be a refugee from Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957).

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Aguirre, The Wrath Of God: Extraordinary Images, Extraordinary Resonance

By Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1971, reprinted in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

We were looking at a back number of the magazine for quite another reason and happened on this piece by the late Ken Eisler. It was written at a time when most of us had heard little of Werner Herzog and seen less. Ken had caught Aguirre, Zorn des Gottes in Mexico City—one of the few places the film played before Herzog became a cult item; he wrote this appreciation sometime later. There are some misremembered details here, and maybe just a little Kunstwerk of Ken’s own. These factors do not contradict our fondness for the piece, even underscore its value as a personal response, one artist to another. Aguirre is firmly established as a cult item now, and a lot of our present readers will not have access to MTN 29 of January-February 1971. So here.
– RTJ

A strange breed of Katze, this “autodidact” film director Herzog. Lacks decorum, y’ know: Dash of this, dash of that … and that … and that. Just splashes it all together up there, out front; damned if the thing don’t come out echt Kunstwerk.

Pedro de Ursua of Navarre leads the conquistadore party
Pedro de Ursua of Navarre leads the conquistadore party

To begin with, a good story. Quasi-historical. It’s 1560. A party of conquistadores toils exhausted through deepest Latin America, looking for EI Dorado. Then, in mid–Amazonian jungle, a putsch! Pedro de Ursua of Navarre, servant of king and country, is out. The new leader: ruthless, crazy Lope de Aguirre—and screw king and country. Sort of based on the annals, I gather; but such liberties, such liberties. Like, Aguirre, the Rebel Conquistador! See the Bad Seed, in Pursuit of the Sud’s Boodle, Go Coco-Loco! He Blitzkrieged the Impenetrable Jungle! It Laughed Last!…

Well, speaking of Murnau, he surely would have relished the supple camerawork of Aguirre, its saturated Andean colors; but its reckless admixture of elements—now that might have been something else again. The pop adventure yarn, maybe; but the pop parable? Colonialism? Fascism? Take your pick.

The distancing, maybe, the cool. Example: On a surging river, a big raft revolves helplessly, crowded with panicky soldiers in gleaming heavy armor, horses, Indians at each corner locked in treadmill struggle with a maelstrom that just won’t quit. Long motionless take, telephoto, from across the river. It looks curiously static, this life-and-death struggle, suspended calmly in time and space.

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Land of Silence and Darkness: What it Means to be Human

Land of Silence and Darkness(1971) was Herzog’s first feature-length documentary (his previous feature, Fata Morgana [1971] begs to be classed as a metaphysical documentary, but by Herzog’s daffy description, is sci-fi). The subject matter, the struggle for human communication, is such a natural for Herzog that in some ways the film is quintessential early Herzog. It follows Fini Straubinger, a leader of, and advocate for, the deaf and blind in Germany, through a life of constant activity, entertaining and visiting people without sight or hearing. But the narrator tells us that after she first lost her sight and hearing in a fall down stairs, she was bed-ridden for seventeen years. The tremendous drive and will that enabled her, finally, to rise from her bed is now channeled into the almost obsessive drive to communicate that is the implicit subject of the film, or at least its central mystery and driving force.

Land of Silence and Darkness
Land of Silence and Darkness

Herzog seems determined to share her point of view: the film’s opening shot, a distorted black and white image of clouds above a road anticipates her later account of a dream describing her memories from when she could see and hear. But the film’s ability to share her point of view is limited by a perverse tension inherent in trying to use film—a medium that communicates solely through the senses of sound and sight—to examine people who can neither see nor hear.

Lacking words, Fini communicates with others and perceives the external world through touch. The film describes a touch alphabet, in which different types of touches express verbal symbols. But the most telling communication in the film comes from touches that create a sensory sharing more immediate and less ordered than language.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small: Persistence and Futility

A singularly evocative setting for the action
A singularly evocative setting for the action

Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) stands out as one of his most singular films. It has virtually no story-line (“dwarfs raise hell” probably exhausts the subject) and its harsh tone seems to confront its audience, aggressively demanding some kind of response. Even the title seems a kind of challenge: why the word “even,” which seems to imply that somehow dwarfs would be the last, rather than the first people one would think of as having “started small?” And yet, despite its obscure “meaning,” Even Dwarfs Started Small is a perfectly appropriate title.

Herzog makes much of his instinctual approach to film-making and, indeed, his films often seem to have emerged almost directly from his unconscious. Of the camel that presides over the climax of Dwarfs Herzog has said, “I only know the camel has to be there.” And he added: “I have no abstract concept that a particular kind of animal signifies this or that, just a clear knowledge that they have an enormous weight in the movies.” Whether or not one takes these pronouncements at face value, Dwarfs‘s images, inexplicable as they may be, provide a singularly evocative setting for the action.

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Offing the Pig: Even Dwarfs Started Small

By Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Even Dwarfs
The revolutionary act of burning the potted plants

It’s easy to see how Werner Herzog’s third feature might have provoked cries of “Reaction!” from students and other militants. The film’s rebellion of dwarfs against a callous but mealy-mouthed reform school administration certainly “starts small”; it barely gets one cubit off the ground, in fact.

Instead of burning down the school, the rebels burn potted plants. Instead of escaping “nach Dolores Hidalgo,” they commandeer an old car, joyride up and down in it a while, and then abandon it with the motor running, to circle around and around the school courtyard. Instead of humbling the sanctimonious administrators, they torment animals, things, each other. A female dwarf sits at the curb, tirelessly smashing one white egg after another against the stony ground. Another “rebel” busies himself trashing an old typewriter and finally flings it at the circling auto.

As a revolution, this is one long “exercise in futility.” And Herzog’s habitual irony, at many points, does seem to be pointing up a politically wry view of the uprising. Why else draw attention, twice, to the proximity of a town called Dolores Hidalgo—site of the historic Grito (cry) that set in motion the Mexican struggle for independence?

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Signs of Life: Longing for a Rational, Ordered World

Although Signs of life (1967) was Herzog’s first feature film, it has few of the self-conscious, look-at-me-making-a-movie film school tricks that often characterize first efforts. Compared to the director’s later work, it seems muted, but it contains many of its director’s signature motifs and devices: strikingly bizarre, expressive images; off-beat, occasionally off-the-wall humor rooted in behavioral eccentricities; a sense of the limitations of verbal communication; visual and verbal references to moving in circles; and an obsessive concern with how characters confront a natural order that is often indifferent, if not actively hostile, to human aspirations.

Signs of Life
Signs of Life

As a strictly fictional film, Signs is closer to Stroszek (1977)—the central character in each is named Stroszek—than to much of Herzog’s intervening work. Signs even employs a narrator whose comments apparently impose order on the action by explaining and describing it. Certainly, compared to later films like the wildly anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Signs seems almost conventional.

Stroszek’s situation in Signs of Life is typically ironic and perverse. A paratrooper we never see leave the ground, he was wounded in occupied territory, during a lull in the fighting, circumstances that, perversely, offered the illusion of safety. He is introduced in extreme long-shot as a helpless, wounded figure; we are told he is a passenger in a truck crossing a desolately beautiful landscape, and we first see him as a motionless figure on a stretcher being carried into a hospital. Through the balance of the film, his world remains out of kilter, and eventually he goes mad and assaults the world, setting off fireworks to prevent the sun from rising.

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Nikkatsu Noir – DVDs for the Week

Nikkatsu Noir

Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of Japan’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. Whether or not the five Japanese gangster films in the Nikkatsu Noir box set from Eclipse are true noirs is debatable, but they are lively B-movie artifacts from the wild and weird era of Nikkatsu’s glory days of crime movie programmers, when the mob movie rats (like Seijun Suzuki) ran wild through the genre.

Nikkatsu Noir on Eclipse
Nikkatsu Noir on Eclipse

It’s no surprise that the Suzuki contribution to the set is the most visually and stylistically dynamic, which is not necessarily to say it’s the best. Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) has a great title, a dynamic opening scene (which, no surprise, begins with a police prisoner transport bus sighted through a rifle scope) and a thoroughly routine detective plot that Suzuki turns into a hot-blooded crime conspiracy thriller featuring kidnapped girls, punk snipers, a stripper killed with an arrow to the breast, a paroled criminal tossed off a cliff, faked deaths, hidden agendas and a prison guard (Michitaro Mizushima) turned dogged investigator trying to piece it all together. In classic crime movie fashion, the bad guys don’t just shoot the good guys, they tie them up in the cab of a gas tanker, let the brake off and send it down a hill trailing gasoline, and light a match to the trail. Given the incendiary dimensions of the scene, I’m particularly impressed that the victims use a lighter to try and burn through the ropes before the fire catches up to the tanker. Mizushima has a real straight-arrow presence amidst the cast of crazed killers, colorful small-time crooks and wild girls, but he has the personality to hold his own and Suzuki packs a lot into 79 minutes of black-and-white Nikkatsuscope craziness.

In fact, all the films in the set are B&W widescreen with the exception of the Koreyoshi Kurahara’s moody I Am Waiting (1957), the earliest film in the collection. The tale of an optimistic bar owner with dreams abroad and a beautiful runaway singer with a painful past (“I’m a canary that’s forgotten how to sing,” she explains) has an atmosphere that recalls the grim beauty of the Jean Gabin French poetic realist films of fog-wrapped port towns and pitiless villages. It’s the outskirts of Yokohama here, where handsome, helpful ex-boxer Joji (Yujiro Ishihara) rescues a pretty girl (Mie Kitahara) from a rainy coast storm and gives her a place to stay in his colorful dive of a dockside bar. They’re both walking wounded, licking their wounds from careers cut short, but it takes another shot to knock the dreams out of Joji and set him on the trail of his brother’s killer, which just so happens to lead to the gangster who has made a claim on the girl. The fog, the night scenes and the grimy port town atmosphere do wonders to keep the budget down and the mood up, but it all gets less dreamy and more tawdry as Joji goes up against the gangster thugs and battles it out in a nightclub with a floor that lights up. It’s easily the most restrained film in the set, more mood piece than action movie, which gives it a little more class than the more aggressively explosive films that follow. And a great bluesy theme song crooned like a lament.

A similarly regret-laden saloon song is crooned over the credits of Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife (1958), which is otherwise more gangster thriller than shadowy noir, complete with a Naked City-style opening narration explaining the culture of crime and corruption ravaging the city. As an arrogant crime boss laughs off every arrest with a hearty cackle, a crusading District Attorney pressures a former criminal (Yujiro Ishihara) trying to put his past behind him to testify, to no avail. At least not until it becomes personal, a matter of honor and revenge. There’s plenty of blackmailing and double-crosses and suicide and Jo Shishido (pre-plastic surgery, just before he became a genre icon with the puffy cheeks) gets tossed off a train, and sure enough a rusty knife is pulled out for a bout of poetic justice. Conventional all the way, to be sure, but the juvenile energy of young thug high on hush money and the city streets and abandoned lots shrouded in night give it a perfectly shadowy atmosphere.

Jo Shishido has barely a few minutes of screen time in Rusty Knife but takes the lead in the final films in the collection, with his now distinctive chipmunk-cheek look in place. (Chuck Stephens writes a bit about the curious – and strangely successful – plastic surgery that Shishido undertook to give him those puffy cheeks and set him apart from the rest of the pretty-boy action starts in the accompanying notes). Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964) drops an American B-movie heist blueprint very much like The Killing (along with flourishes of both versions of The Killers) and a romantic criminal code into a world of corporate crime bosses and dishonorable thugs. Togawa (Shishido), sprung from prison early so he can run the heist for a big business gangster leader, has reservations about the job and for good reason. He and his reliable second-in-command are stuck with a sneering junkie and a punch-drunk boxer a few knocks away from brain death. Shishido’s Togawa is a cool customer, pensive and still, always sizing up the situation, which serves him well when the perfect armored car heist hits a glitch. It’s telling that they hole up in a former American military base, now a decaying slum of rotting buildings; the American influence hovers over the entire film, a classic American crime movie in a Japanese idiom. “I need payback,” Togawa demands, just before he’s grabbed by thugs who would like nothing better than help him metes out his revenge without mercy. The brassy score powers it along with a driving beat, down into the sewers and back up into a thoroughly nihilistic ending.

Jo Shishido is a cool killer
Jo Shishido is a cool killer – but what’s with those cheeks?

The set ends in 1967 with Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, though if I’m not mistaken it’s actually a Baretta that is assassin Shuji’s (Shishido) handgun of choice. For his hit on an aging crime boss he uses a high powered rifle, but the killing is the last thing that goes right on this job. With the airports and docks covered, Shuji and his partner hole up in a port town truck stop while awaiting new travel plans. Once again, Shishido is the cool customer in a world of easily corruptible crooks and civilians. He trades his own life to rescue his partner, but in this world it’s apparently just fine to arm yourself to the teeth and shoot it out at your surrender. Shuji is a pretty far sighted guy; he has a second brake hidden in his getaway car and even digs himself a shallow grave for the final showdown, but he’s got other plans for it. The great spaghetti western-inspired score adds familiar Japanese instruments and jazz inflections as it progresses, becoming a real genre symphony, and Nomura pulls out all stops for the mad shoot-out in an abandoned quarry: this film’s answer to the desert plains of a spaghetti western. It ends the set on a high note and I was left high on crazy crime movie fumes. None of these are masterpieces but they are all inventive little nuggets of genre fun with energy, attitude and style, and in moments–such as the wild finale here–it’s just plain delirious.

Eclipse is Criterion’s budget-minded line of box set so there are no supplements, but Asian film expert Chuck Stephens provides brief essays with each film. Stephens has a rather overripe writing style, more expressive of his love of the films than of the films or the genre itself, but he does offer some context and background on the films and filmmakers and on the youth culture that brought younger and younger faces on to the screens.

The transfers are all fine, the earliest showing a little wear, the later ones sharper and with strong contrasts. Only Take Aim at the Police Van shows any noticeable flaws: in the master shots the image has a soft pocket in the center right, but only for long shots. Close-ups and medium shots look fine, which leads me to believe that it’s an issue with the master materials. Regardless, it’s a very minor issue and does not distract from the film. The soundtracks are strong, with only minor hiss, and the music comes through strong and clear. All in all, a real treat.

Published in conjunction with seanax.com.