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.

When Herr R[ainer] Ran Amok

Whether or not Rainer Fassbinder was the most talented of the wave of West German directors who emerged during the 1970s, he was certainly the most prolific, protean and elusive. His first feature, Love is Colder than Death was released in 1969. Incredibly, the films discussed below, Fox and His Friends (1974) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) were his 22nd and 23rd feature-length works; by the time he died in 1982 he had completed 14 more including the 16-hour television series that was his magnum (and grand) opus Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980].

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla

Fassbinder worked with frenzied urgency, pushing toward, and almost thriving on, excess—of stylization, melodrama, visual expressiveness, compositional precision, and pretty much everything else that defines the limits of film as a dramatic and expressive medium. His work could be wildly uneven and occasionally overwrought, clinically dissecting characters with the detached cruelty of a child pulling the wings off of flies. But it was seldom dull or pedestrian, and he seemed congenitally incapable of anything perfunctory or unengaged. Add in a personal life reportedly consisting of relationships that were a vipers’ pit of duplicity, jealousy and manipulation and a lifestyle Dionysian enough to give mere degeneracy a good name: he famously dismissed concerns that cocaine might ruin his health with the glib assertion “in Hollywood I can get a Teflon nose.” It’s enough to make you wonder how he got anything done, much less became one of the most productive film directors in history. (Of course, he did die at 37—well past his “sell by” date physically but not artistically: his penultimate film, Veronika Voss [1981], was among his best). He only dialed back his lifestyle—reportedly even abstaining from white powdery substances—and fully devoted himself to his craft once, for the year he spent laboriously realizing his dream project, a film adaptation of a novel he revered, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The resulting masterpiece runs 16 hours, enough screen time to imbue the characters and their milieus with a richness and depth not always evident in his other work.  Sarris blurbed it “an Everest of modern cinema.” Its fullness suggests that the fierce urgency of the broad strokes he used to craft his other work may have sacrificed complexity and resonance for force and clarity.

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Honda’s Sci-Fi, Cassavetes’ Husbands, Tati at Play – DVDs for the Week

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection

Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography.

The H-Man (1957) is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to “Beauty and the Liquidman”) that slurps into Tokyo, starts oozing up legs of gangsters and digesting them in seconds flat. It’s a monster movie horror within a cop crime drama, with detectives investigating a drug ring where all the suspects keeps getting dissolved. Motivation for the hungry, hungry puddle is vaguely suggested by a scientist who reads a headline about a missing suspect and immediately suspects radioactive hanky panky, but it still doesn’t quite explain why it invades the nightclub where all the gangsters hang, unless it absorbs the instincts of its victims as well. At least it that would explain its obsession with nightclub singer Chikako Arai. There are some great ooze effects of the gelatin spill going up walls and some dummies that deflate in place of victims being boiled into mush. The optical effects with freeze frames and animated slime are far less effective and for some reason they periodically turn into big green ghosts.

Battle in Outer Space (1959) is a visually splendid and narratively pedestrian space opera, short on character and plot but full of great miniatures and dramatic effects in a film packed with spectacle. It’s not just ships zapping each other with lasers in the dark void of space; there’s a caterpillar surface transport crawling over the rocky volcanic moonscape, a shoot-out with a fleet of flying saucers, a mind-controlled assassin sabotaging a human rocketship and of course the alien assault on Earth landmarks in the final battle. They may look like toys in flight, but they are they best toys a sci-fi geek could behold on screen in 1959, which alone makes it a genre highlight.

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Army of Shadows and the Unforgiving Code of Jean-Pierre Melville

[Originally published in slightly different form on GreenCine in 2006, in conjunction with the American theatrical release of Army of Shadows.]

Jean-Pierre Melville in Breathless
Jean-Pierre Melville in "Breathless"

Jean-Pierre Melville is surely the ultimate cult auteur in the French cinema. Spiritual godfather of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to Melville with a generous cameo in his debut feature Breathless), Melville was a maverick in the system from his astounding, independently produced debut La Silence de la Mer (1947), a chamber drama set in the Nazi occupation of France, to his final film, the buddies-turned-nemeses heist thriller Un Flic (1972). He’s a favorite director of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann (whose coolly attenuated crime thrillers owe a great debt to Melville), and his masterpiece Le Samourai (1969) was an inspiration to both Walter Hill’s The Driver and Woo’s The Killer.

Yet only in the past few years have his films really become available to American audiences, largely through theatrical rereleases by Rialto and lovingly produced DVDs from Criterion (who have released eight of his thirteen features since 2002). With Un Flic (aka Dirty Money) on DVD from Lionsgate (and earlier from Anchor Bay), that brings the number up to nine. It’s like they are being slowly doled out, like the last precious drops of water on a desert trek.

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Last Year at Graceland

Last Year at Graceland: The Story Behind Elvis Presley’s Lost Film

TCMElvis3Actual listing from the Turner Classic Movies website, August 16, 2002:

“3:00 PM – TICKLE ME/1965

A wealthy man tries to convince a bored socialite that they had an affair years earlier. Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff. D: Alain Resnais. C-91m.”

In the ill-starred filmography of Elvis Presley, Tickle Me has long been considered the lone instance of the King reaching out beyond a simplistic movie formula, and thus presents a fascinating case study for Elvis fan and serious film scholar alike. (To be sure, Girls! Girls! Girls! has its champions, but save that for another day.) Tickle Me was originally assigned to director Hal “First Take” Beauregard, who, despite his advanced age and unfamiliarity with post-World War I music, had already guided four Elvis vehicles to box-office success. Just before shooting began, Beauregard was taken off Tickle Me when it was discovered that he had been legally deaf and partly blind for the previous decade, a condition known only to himself and Presley’s manager, the legendary Colonel Tom Parker.

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Une affiche d'Elvis

Desperate to proceed, and with a brief window available before a locked-in start date for Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Col. Parker sought advice from the only person in Hollywood older than himself: Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia. The Colonel hoped to hire that Oscar-winning film’s director, David Lean, and indeed Lean worked on a story treatment for a week or so – but by the time he finished, Tickle Me no longer resembled its original concept. The Lean script would have necessitated re-casting, to say nothing of a three-hour running time, so Lean moved on. (Traces of his ideas can be found in the Presley vehicle Harum Scarum, its Arabian Nights atmosphere clearly influenced by Lawrence.)

This is where the saga truly becomes interesting. With only days until principal photography was scheduled to begin, Colonel Parker asked Lean for an inspiration. And Lean found one: Alain Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had exploded onto international movie screens a few years before. Resnais was in Hollywood hoping to jump-start his American career with an MGM horse-racing picture, but immediately leapt at the chance to work with the singer known in France as Le Roi du Pelvis. It was Resnais’ inspiration to enlist writer Alain Robbe-Grillet to punch up the Tickle Me script, which was originally penned by Ellwood Ullmann and Edward Bernds, a long-established writing team whose previous film was The Three Stooges in Orbit. One might expect Robbe-Grillet, widely celebrated for the 1950s Nouveau Roman movement as well as his superbly manicured fingernails, to look down on the assignment. Yet he relished the prospect of exploring U.S. culture from the inside. Later he was to recall the experience as a welcome break from the “excess of thinking” that marked his work in French literature.

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Happy Anniversary, Parallax View!

parallax_view_crop

Parallax View turns 1!

This film magazine/blog, a collaboration of a small group of Seattle-based film critics, went live on August 14, 2008. To celebrate our first anniversary, we pay tribute to the film that inspired the name with archival pieces by our contributors.

The Pakula Parallax by Richard T. Jameson

13 Ways of Looking at The Parallax View by Robert Cumbow

The Parallax View: An Introduction by Sean Axmaker

The Parallax View on DVD available at Amazon

13 Ways of Looking at The Parallax View

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

1.

parallax_view_poster
The Parallax View

The Parallax View is an interesting suspense thriller with a thin plot involving a newspaper reporter named Frady (Warren Beatty) and his independent investigation of an employment bureau for assassins.

2.

The Parallax View is Alan Pakula’s hommage to Alfred Hitchcock, employing many of the Master’s techniques and devices, particularly his penchant for experimenting with different kinds of suspense and various ways of fulfilling—or not fulfilling—audience expectation. Pakula primes us for Hitchcock allusions with his precredit sequence, a high-altitude assassination and fistfight culminating in a fall from the Space Needle. The Needle is used even more casually than Hitchcock used the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur) and Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest).

3.

Like much of Hitchcock’s best work, and like Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir, The Parallax View works consistently against its soundtrack. The film’s most arresting sequences take place while the track booms away irrelevantly with parade marches, political speeches, patriotic music. There is almost no crucial dialogue, and whole scenes—most notably one aboard an airplane threatened by a bomb—are played out against a subdued jumble of background noise. Later, a politician is murdered while his pre-recorded speech drones on. But while a blind person could not begin to follow the film, neither could a deaf person fully grasp its impact; for the ironic contrast between sight and sound in The Parallax View significantly amplifies the film’s theme of deliberately deceptive appearances. Michael Small’s sparse music score nicely reflects this irony in its use of a quick series of falling notes for solo trumpet. At its best moments, it calls to mind heroic aspirations echoing ineffectually off the spacious, sterile architecture that becomes the film’s principal and most memorable visual image.

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The Pakula Parallax

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 12 No. 5, September/October 1976]

There is no more classical filmmaker than Alan J. Pakula at work in the American cinema today—a description that applies at several levels. Among contemporary directorial hotshots he is a comparative veteran, having been employed in one capacity or another in the studio system since the late Forties. The meticulous production values of his films suggest more affinity to the Old Hollywood than to the Age of the Cinemobile, although the seamless fusion of location work and impeccably detailed soundstage recreations (Stroheim could scarcely have improved on stuffing the All the President’s Men wastebaskets with authentic Washington Post trash) sit well with presentday preferences for verismo.

The Parallax View
The Parallax View from the Space Needle

Similarly, the astonishing density of performance he elicits from the merest bit-player yields the kind of behavioral richness associated with the ensemble professionalism of a bygone generation of character actors. Indeed, he goes one better. Even when a performer is trotting out his or her familiar specialty number (William Daniels’ fidgety-smarmy political aide in The Parallax View, Valerie Curtin’s teary collapse when Woodstein appears at her door a second time in All the President’s Men), the character has an edge and validity that suggest Pakula has taken the player back to the origin of the shtik, and beyond.

Another salient element of the director’s “Hollywood classicism” is his almost Hitchcockian shrewdness about tone and pacing. This figures crucially in All the President’s Men‘s success as an irresistibly compelling general-audience picture which neither sacrifices seriousness of purpose nor betrays the attenuated time-and-space conditions of the events it recounts. In fact, in All the President’s Men and its companions in the so-called “paranoia trilogy,” Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), entertainment (suspense, excitement) and art (critical perspective, formal perception, humane comprehension) are served collaterally by way of sheer, goosepimply engrossment. (And even though The Parallax View, for one, failed to dent the box office, every audience I saw it with was riveted to the screen.)

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The Parallax View: An Introduction

[Originally published on the Turner Classic Movies website on March 2009.]

Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, a political thriller with an unmistakable resemblance to the Kennedy assassination, was not the first conspiracy thriller to emerge from Hollywood – you can trace the lineage back to The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 – and it was not a hit when it was fitfully released in 1974. But its reputation and stature has only grown in the years since and it is arguably the definitive conspiracy thriller of the seventies.

Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady
Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady

Warren Beatty stars as investigative reporter Joe Frady, though when we first glimpse him in the film he’s merely a face in the crowd around Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce). He tries to bluff his way into an exclusive gathering for the Senator at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle but is rebuffed and thus left on the ground when the Senator is shot and the gunman killed in an escape attempt. “There is no evidence of a conspiracy,” concludes a panel of judges, who proclaim it the work of a lone gunman. (We, of course, know there was at least one accomplice who slipped to safety.). It’s the film’s answer to the Warren Commission and Pakula shoots the tribunal floating in a sea of shadow, a tiny image that slowly, ominously grows larger as the credits roll. By the end of the sequence, they fill the screen with an image as distorted as their conclusions.

In those first few minutes, Pakula establishes an atmosphere of unease and a distrust of authority that never lets up. When we catch of with Frady three years later, being hounded by the police for his investigations into drug crimes and enforcement, he comes on like a dogged reporter from a thirties newspaper drama with seventies style, a mix of old school and modern sensibility. But even he is dubious of conspiracy claims until fellow reporter and ex-girlfriend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) turns up dead (a suicide is the ruling, but Frady doesn’t buy it). She’s the seventh of twenty witnesses to the Senator Carroll shooting to die in the three years since, and once Frady takes up the case, he discovers that he is also now a target. With the tacit support of a paternal editor (Hume Cronyn), Frady follows his clues to the mysterious Parallax Corporation and, with the help of a former FBI agent (Kenneth Mars) and a psychologist (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), catches the interest of a sinister recruiter (Walter McGinn). “If you qualify, and we think you can, we’re prepared to offer you the most lucrative and rewarding work of your life.”

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Not Quite Hollywood – Disreputable and Delirious Downunder Movies

Mark Hartley’s unabashedly affectionate Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation!, his tribute to Australian genre cinema, is one of the rarities that justifies my passion for documentaries about films and film history: a smartly made look at an otherwise neglected aspect of film history and culture, packed with colorful stories, witty observations, punky attitude and real history, and delivered with unrestrained passion and excitement for the subject. This is Hartley’s feature debut, but his resume includes scores of featurettes on Australian movies—from the official classics to the cult items, the high and low of cinema culture—for DVD supplements. In addition to the first person history this has given him, it’s also been an entrée to the directors, actors and other filmmaking folks of the era, and he is able to bring a wealth of voices to his film: witnesses to the thriving domestic Australian cinema that gets overlooked in the rush to praise the more respectable and dignified offerings.

Richard Franklin's "Patrick" - once the highest grossing film in Italy
Richard Franklin's "Patrick" - once the highest grossing film in Italy

As Hartley reminds us, there was no Australian film industry to speak of—and certainly no celebrated Australian New Wave, with its gentile historical subjects and tasteful filmmaking—when producers like John D. Lamond and Anthony I. Ginnane and directors like Tim Burstall cashed in on the newly-minted ratings code of 1971. They turned out raucous R-rated sex romps and boorish comedies to critical disdain and popular success, not just domestically but internationally as well. When the nerds-and-boobs (and more!) formula wore thin at the box office, horror films (Patrick, 1978, Razorback, 1984), action movies (The Man From Hong Kong, 1975) and car culture outlaw thrillers (Stone, 1974, Mad Max, 1979) became the coin of the grindhouse and drive-in realms, many of them quite profitable, most of them exportable, virtually all of them deplored by the Antipodeon arbiters of taste and culture.

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St. Nick in Seattle

David Patrick Lowery’s new film—and first feature—St. Nick was showcased at the shorts film festival Rawstock 5 at the end of July. Having liked all of Lowery’s earlier work that I had seen, I didn’t want to miss it, or the rare chance to meet the film maker in person.

St. Nick
St. Nick

My anticipation was not misplaced. St. Nick is a constant adventure in light, shape, texture, and color. There’s narrative, too, to be sure. But it emerges only after the film and its central mystery have hooked you through images and episodes that tickle your sense of wonder and tease your curiosity.

How did these two kids get to where they are? How far are they from home? Why are they on their own? Lowery lets these questions hang in the back of his film. His interest lies not in their back story or motivation but in their resourcefulness, their sense of adventure, the enthusiasm with which they embrace the world. In a word, their kid-ness.

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Hitchcock’s Topaz Revisited

“It is time that we start. Will you be kind enough to follow me? What Im going to show you will be mainly the traditional things. Up here let me show you details in the production, which were rather proud of showing. As you see, flowers are made petal by petal, and this is an art, which has been in our factory for almost two hundred years, and you will see that it takes two days to complete … As you see, the flowers are molded petal by petal and stamen by stamen; even in very small flowers you can find as many as ten to fifteen stamens. The figurines which you see being ornated with flowers were first made as a gift from Danish women to our late king. Please follow me farther up here …”

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"Topaz" - The titles over a Soviet May Day parade

The first words in Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-first feature are spoken by an unnamed guide in a Danish porcelain works. One tends not to take great notice of them while watching the film because there is so much else to see: a high Russian official, his wife and his daughter, defecting while on holiday in Copenhagen, have been pursued since the beginning of the movie several minutes earlier. Yet here they are in cold print, such a clear outline of the entire film to follow. As ever with Hitchcock, the more you look and listen, the more you discover.

The picture begins, of course, at the very beginning, with the credit sequence. It is unlikely that Hitchcock could have secured permission to take nice crisp 35mm Technicolor images of a Soviet May Day parade, but the way he employs grainy color newsreels makes them his own. Huge red banners display history’s demigods. Crowds — perceptibly composed of individuals — watch columns of marching troops, then cars and tanks visibly bearing more fighting men. The shots get closer. Finally there is just the machinery of war, looming nearer and larger, crowding human beings right off the screen. The sole remaining crowd shot is distant, indistinct, grainily frozen; a title tells us that somewhere in this mass is “a high Russian official who disagrees with his government’s policy of force and what it threatens.”

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 2)

Bardelys the Magnificent

The most anticipated event at any silent film festival is the premiere of a “lost” film, rediscovered and restored. Bardelys the Magnificent, the 1926 swashbuckler starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, was long thought lost for good but for a brief glimpse in Vidor’s Show People. Then a single surviving print, in poor shape and missing a reel, was found in France in 2006. An exhaustive digital restoration was undertaken by Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) with David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and others and the results are thrilling. Apart from a very effective reconstruction of the lost reel through stills and shots from a surviving trailer, it looks superb.

This was the last of five collaborations between Vidor, one of the class acts of the silent cinema, and Gilbert, at that time one Hollywood’s greatest stars. Both are at the top of their game; from the opening scenes they walk that fine line between swashbuckler and spoof with sure footing and unflagging confidence. Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardelys, an an infamous womanizer and the kind of character that John Barrymore did well, the arrogant aristocrat lover and rogue. Gilbert plays it with more dry wit and insouciance than Barrymore ever did. He’s helped immensely by the pithy gems of the intertitles written by Dorothy Farnum (this film features the finest and funniest intertitles of the festival and is a reminder of the often overlooked art of silent movie title writing), but his performance sells the lines. Within seconds of the opening images, he’s suddenly engaged in a fencing duel with the husband of his latest conquest (which he treats as rather familiar sport) and ends the scene by reconciling the two and driving them both out the front door, still tossing off dryly witty lines as it has all been a mere inconvenience. The story, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, turns on a challenge from a rival aristocrat (Roy D’Arcy, looking like an over-coiffed villain from the Richard Lester The Three Musketeers) to woo the stubbornly resistant Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who already rejected the vain aristocrat. Boardman (who soon became director Vidor’s wife) is a modern presence in this costume picture of flamboyant manners. With minimal make-up and a direct, unshowy performance style, she stands in contrast to the rituals and elaborate shows of affection and outrage. It’s not hard to see how the frivolous Bardelys, a man who could marry any woman he wanted to (if, in fact, he wanted to), is smitten and transformed by this unpretentious, unspoiled, unfailingly honest beauty.

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 1)

SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks
SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks

I’ve traveled to Pordenone, Italy, three times to attend Le Giornate de Cinema Muto, the biggest, grandest, most dedicated silent film festival in the world: eight days of morning to midnight screenings of the masterpieces, rarities, rediscoveries and revelations. Yet in my own backyard (more or less) I’d never been to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the weekend-long celebration that unspools every July at the Castro. Until this year. To the world it was the 14th Annual SFSFF, but it was my first visit to this well mounted, well curated and exceptionally well attended festival. It won’t be my last. To the rest of the world it may seem like a curious pursuit, but I can think of few pleasures greater than spending a couple of days in the Castro (even without air conditioning) soaking in silent films and live music by some of the best silent accompanists in the world.

Curating a silent film festival takes a special kind of art. Apart from rediscovered and newly restored films, there is none of the urgency of discovery and representation that drives the selection in the rest of the film festival world. And while 80-90% of all silent films have been lost to time and neglect, that still leaves thousands upon thousands of features and shorts available to programmers at any given time. So how do you choose a dozen programs that balance the known and the unknown, masterpieces and curiosities, while suggesting the scope of thirty-some years of silent cinema from all over the world? I don’t know the secret alchemy, but the programmers of SFSFF have found it. The features of this fest are firmly in twenties, the golden age of silent cinema (the exception is the 1932 Wild Rose, from China’s own golden age of silent cinema), with shorts spanning nearly thirties years. The result is not just an appreciation of the greatness of the art across genres and cultures, it is testament to the state of the art of cinema from the mid-twenties to the dawn of sound, and of the Hollywood filmmaking machine where every cog was a professional at the peak of his profession.

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on ‘Humpday’

Humpday, the third feature from local filmmaker Lynn Shelton, made its world premiere in the Dramatic Competition section of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film sale of the festival and went on to win a Special Jury Prize “For the Spirit of Independence.” It subsequently played in the exclusive Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and was the Centerpiece Gala for the Northwest Connections sidebar at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year. It makes its theatrical debut on Friday, June 10 in New York and Seattle.

Lynn Shelton
Lynn Shelton

Humpday is the story of best friends – one married and seemingly content in a conventional lifestyle, the other an aimless traveler whose artistic ambitions are unmatched by his accomplishments – who reunite after 10 years and make an unusual commitment to an extreme art project: two straight men having sex on camera for an amateur porno festival. Mark Duplass (of The Puffy Chair and Hannah Takes the Stairs) and Joshua Leonard (co-star of the indie blockbuster The Blair Witch Project) play the very straight buddies who essentially dare each other into the project and Seattle stage actress Alycia Delmore co-stars as Duplass’s wife. The rest of Shelton’s cast and crew was drawn from the pool of Seattle talent. I had previously interviewed Shelton about her first two features, We Go Way Back and My Effortless Brilliance [read the interview on Parallax View here] and and then kept running into her at screenings and receptions. Wouldn’t you know, we became friends. This interview was conducted at her home in January 2009, mere days before she left for the Sundance premiere (and before the film’s sale to Magnolia). It was relaxed and fun, probably the last interview she gave under such easy-going conditions, and he we hung out for over an hour talking movies, her particular approach to filmmaking and the Seattle independent scene, among other things.

How did you come to cast Mark Duplass?

I met Mark on the set of True Adolescents, which was being shot in Seattle in August of ’07. He was starring in it and I was shooting still photography. We knew of each other, we had mutual friends in the filmmaking community, so it was sort of like no introduction was necessary. We just gave each other a big old hug the first time we saw each other and immediately bonded as filmmakers. We would jabber away over the craft table and at lunch and we realized we had a lot in common in terms of our filmmaking philosophies. And it was really clear that we wanted to work together in some capacity by the time he went back to L.A.. I told him that I wanted to direct him.

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