Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) was Werner Herzog’s fifth feature film—his first with Klaus Kinski—and arguably his most compelling, resonant, and admired early work. Its opening titles announce its subject as an expedition led by Pizarro in search of El Dorado, that crossed the Andes descended to the jungle floor, and made an ill-fated decision to attempt a raft trip down river.
From its opening moments, the film has a dual focus. The opening titles, fictitiously evoking Spanish conquistadors—an expedition, set in 1560, supposedly led by Pizarro, who died in 1541—suggest a narrative fiction film, perhaps a fable about imperialism. But a breathtaking series of early images, of clouds, of a vertical mountainside with a fragile human chain descending, as much from the clouds as the summit, suggest a lyrically poetic documentary portrayal of man interacting with—and being overwhelmed by—the natural world. In many ways, of course, the two are complementary; the narrative of imperialism is largely one of conquerors subduing natives before being, in turn subdued and engulfed by the land.
This double focus is not surprising for Herzog, who persistently blurred the distinctions between documentary and fiction. Fata Morgana (1970) contains some of the most poetically evocative landscapes ever filmed, but Herzog reportedly believes there’s a narrative in there somewhere, based on a creation legend. And the “straight” documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) uses its factual subjects as starting points for metaphysical exploration. Finally, the early Herzog “fiction” film with the fewest “realistic” trappings, the ponderously stylized Heart of Glass (1976)—complete with a cast “acting” while under hypnosis—nearly collapses under the weight of its self-conscious ramblings.
Consider this a post-script to Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon: your guide to revisiting Chabrol on DVD (U.S. DVD releases only). More than half of Chabrol’s over 50 features have been released to DVD stateside, thanks in large part to such labels as Kino, Kimstim, Pathfinder and First Run, with other labels filling in the gaps with individual titles here and there. It’s almost enough for a representative retrospective. Almost.
Most of Chabrol’s major films are available, but among the most glaring omissions are his match set of debut features: Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959), both starring Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy. The roots of his entire career can be found in these beautifully crafted dramas, which are not thrillers per se but complex character studies with roiling relationships; that dynamic remains throughout the best of Chabrol’s films. (For the completist with an all-region player, there are Australian releases of both films in PAL format.) Criterion, how about tackling these New Wave essentials, either in special editions or a no-frills Eclipse collection with some of Chabrol’s less well-known films, like Les godelureaux (1961), also with Jean-Claude Brialy. Also unavailable are Landru (aka Bluebeard, 1963), his beautiful but uncharacteristically neo-realist The Horse of Pride (1980) and his “Dr. Mabuse” film Dr. M (1990), and the anthology films Les sept peches capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1962) and Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (World’s Greatest Swindlers, 1964), to which Chabrol contributed a short film apiece.
What’s most frustrating about the treatment of Chabrol’s films that are available on DVD is that he isn’t given the critical attention of his New Wave compatriots. Criterion has lavished attention on the films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle with beautifully restored and remastered editions of the films supplemented by new and archival interviews and documentaries. The Kino releases of Chabrol’s early films are fine and KimStim’s releases look good, but many of the Pathfinder releases are indifferently mastered from mediocre prints and the quality varies substantially from disc to disc. Ten years ago it wasn’t as much of an issue, but with the growth of home theater and HD widescreen monitors, what was a minor defect before becomes magnified.
[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, May 22, 1973]
For some time it was easy to regard Claude Chabrol as far and away the least of the nouvelle vague Big Three. Whereas Truffaut gifted us with bittersweet, occasionally wry affirmations of an abounding, Renoiresque life force and Godard challenged us to tag along as he sought new ways of looking at movies and at the world as well, Chabrol seemed to be playing games of a highly dubious, unrewardingly perverse nature. His early works, like Les Cousins and À Double Tour, reveled in the habitually petty and gradually escalating nastiness of very unattractive human beings; their occasional doses of broken-field camera movement and hothouse color tended less to exhilarate the viewer than to inculcate a sense of the director’s rash presumptuousness. (It was irritating to feel the nagging doubt that even though convention insisted such bravura displays had no place in depictions of such folks and their tainted milieux, Chabrol knew that, too, and had the germ of a serious purpose in flouting convention — though a failure of technique or timing usually flawed the unexpected track or crane or whatever, and hence restored one’s sense of complacent moral/aesthetic superiority before one was forced to concede Chabrol the point.) Bourgeois resentment tended to be upheld by the reviewers and the distributors: most Chabrols that managed to get to the States scarcely got beyond New York thanks to pans or lukewarm appreciations and soft grosses. Even at home Chabrol did not fare as his fellow critical confreres–turned–filmmakers, and eventually his resources (a wife’s personal fortune) ran out. The mid-Sixties found him making commissioned films, wishful James Bond imitations (Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche, Marie-Chantal contre le DocteurKha, Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite). The case seemed closed. Then, about the time Godard went politicking into anticinema and Truffaut threatened to get lost in Hitchcock imitations, Chabrol came back with Les Biches, and the thing was so gorgeous, so enthralling, yet so quirkily self-aware at the same time that I, for one, began to wonder whether this once trivially quirky gentleman mightn’t turn out to be the foremost classicist of the New Wave. And after La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, and Le Boucher, I’ve stopped wondering.
La Femme infidèle looks like the director’s masterpiece to date. It’s certainly a masterpiece. From the opening, almost functional glide along the front of the Desvallées’ suburban home, the film gathers itself with delicate relentlessness and moves toward one of the most lucid and fulfilled closing shots I’ve ever experienced. A major charm and, beyond and through that, a major strength of Truffaut’s films is that they are rife with “moments.” In Baisers volés or Deux Anglaises et le Continent these moments tend to accrete toward a deep conviction of the artist’s — and sometimes his characters’ — receptivity to life’s bounty. (In the contemporary world of Baisers volés and the continuing saga of Antoine Doinel, they testify toward the ultimate shaping of a random life; in the temporally distant cinematic country of a Deux Anglaises or a Jules et Jim they reverberate with remembered heartbeats, the knowledge of missed opportunities, the tenderly comic sense of people who caught at life with such fondly absurd deliberation that they crushed it; in a La Mariée était en noir or La Sirène du Mississippi, they suggest the flutter of a sensibility (Truffaut’s) whose instincts run counter to the generic house rules. Chabrol’s films — at least, once one has sat through them and is in a position to consider the whole of the individual movie — suggest a kind of organic containment or completion. This is hardly to say that Truffaut’s films lack form. Rather, their very form encompasses a sense of spontaneity, of accident: shots and scenes may go by very rapidly, as if they were pieces of a larger spatial and temporal reality but only these snatches of perception are important to the director and to us and so they are all we see. Truffaut is capable of long-take scenes and Chabrol is capable of fragmentation; but even Chabrol’s techniques of fragmentation and disruption tend to reinforce our sense of the scene’s relation to the entire movement of the piece.
This piece was written about fifteen years ago for a cinema biographies project that never came to fruition. None of it appears to need changing, but by way of updating I’ve appended a comment on a recent Chabrol picture seen in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. â€”RTJ, June 24, 2009
Claude Chabrol was one of the â€œyoung Turkâ€ critics-turned-filmmakers who constituted the New Wave of French cinema at the turn of the â€™60s. At the time, he ran a distant third to the iconoclastic, theoretical Jean-Luc Godard and the warm-hearted, soaringly lyrical FranÃ§ois Truffaut. But in the late â€™60s, Chabrol emerged as a magisterially accomplished classicist, with an unbroken string of masterpieces that established him as one of the worldâ€™s finest directors. He has managed to remain commercially viableâ€”indeed, awesomely prolificâ€”over the ensuing decades, while pursuing his own distinctive, coolly detached vision of life and cinema.
Jean Renoir’s world-view, famously stated by a character the director played in The Rules of the Game (1939), is that “Everyone has his reasons.” Although Renoir recognized the corollary—that some reasons are better than others—he always understood the complex motivations that drive human actions. And that understanding, in turn, helped him to animate his characters—sympathetic or not—with a vibrancy that makes them compelling screen presences.
Renoir’s work of the thirties, including his “official” classics, The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game, is often considered his finest work. And his deceptively simple work in Hollywood during the forties is often underrated. But perhaps his greatest sustained achievement came with the four color films of the fifties: The River (1951), The Golden Coach, (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956).
The River, Renoir’s first film in color and last in English, showcases the thematic richness and empathetic characterization that define the director’s best work. A film of astonishing physical beauty, The River is one of the richest explorations of man’s place in the natural world ever filmed. From the opening sequence, a series of shots of life along a river in India, the film explores man in nature, integrating human experience into a larger order encompassing all life.
Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply.
The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees. Only in the domestic scenes of Jof (Nils Poppe) and his family, wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and infant son Mikael, does the sun come out to warm their world with anything close to hope. And it’s that warmth, that hope, that promise of the future the knight sees in their love and their laughing child, that he is able to save by his simple sacrifice.
As I remembered from college, it’s full of heavy themes about faith and loss, about the meaning of life and the fear of death, with a lugubrious and introspective knight trying to hold onto his idealism in the face of a grim world and an unforgiving existence. What I had forgotten was the details: religion is a grotesquery of death and suffering, the strange and the sick are accused of being in league with the devil and are executed while the trembling devout lash themselves in penitence, offering their suffering as proof of their devotion, or as a sacrifice to a merciless God in exchange for sparing their lives. “They speak of Judgment Day,” says one. Things have not changed in 50 years or 500 or 1000 years.
David Carradine died Wednesday in Bangkok at the age of 72. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 2004, while he was promoting Kill Bill Vol. 2. This interview was originally published on GreenCine in April 2004.
The son of John Carradine and elder half-brother to Keith and Robert, Davidâ€™s career began in the early 1960s, mostly playing heavies and punks, though he also took on the role of Shane in the short-lived TV series spin-off of the film. His career took off when, in 1972, he starred in Martin Scorseseâ€™s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha, and created the role of half-caste Chinese-American Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk wandering the 19th century American West in search of his American relatives, in the hit TV series Kung Fu. His subsequent career bounced between prestigious projects with Hal Ashby (Bound For Glory), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpentâ€™s Egg), and Walter Hill (The Long Riders), TV-roles, and dozens of B-movies, and he can count such cult classics as Death Race 2000, Sonny Boy (where he plays a woman!) and Q (directed by old Army buddy Larry Cohen) to his credit. In between heâ€™s helmed his own personal projects, among them the films You and Me and Americana. Carradine got his star on the Hollywood Boulevardâ€™s Walk of Fame in 1997.
When Warren Beatty bowed out of Quentin Tarantinoâ€™s long-gestating revenge epic Kill Bill, Tarantino brought in the then 66-year-old Carradine and completely rewrote the role for his new star and the man who was Woody Guthrie, Death Race 2000â€™s Frankenstein, and wandering Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine received a career revival men half his age would kill Bill for.
No April Foolâ€™s joke, Carradine came to Seattle on April 1, 2004, his second stop in a two month publicity junket for Kill Bill, Vol. 2. His weatherbeaten face showed his age, and his long salt-and-pepper gray hair, hanging loose down about his shoulders, and his serene smile and easy-going willingness to talk about any subject showed a man comfortable with his year. Dressed casually in a brown leather jacket and a loose-fitting white shirt, open to his chest to reveal a small silver dagger hanging from a chain, and running shoes with no socks, he calmly chain-smoked one cigarette after another while he weighed questions and offered insights with a nonchalant confidence and modesty.
If movies indeed tap into the zeitgeist, Terminator Salvation, director McG’s grim reboot of the 25-year-old man vs. machine franchise, speaks to a demographic in awfully low spirits. Will this relentless, episodic slog through post-apocalyptic drear, punched up by paroxysms of extreme violence, deliver at the box office and resurrect the Terminator series (sequels are already in the works)?
Set in 2018, after nuclear Judgment Day, Salvation‘s ruined world has been leached of all color and signs of life. The days are steeped in sickly beige-brown, the noirish nights drenched in rain. Hunted down by machines of assorted shapes and sizes, the few remaining humans, always starkly lighted, resemble gaunted concentration-camp survivors stripped of any expression but a reflexive hunger to stay alive. (“We’re in the cattle car now,” despairs a fellow picked by an Ã¼ber-machina transporter.)
Lock-jawed Christian Bale plays grizzled resistance messiah John Connor as if programmed to project nothing but single-minded rage laced with unstoppable courage. Happily, Connor’s unlikely brother-in-arms (Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, soon to star in James Cameron’s Avatar), a convicted killer reformatted by Cyberdyne, occasionally permits himself a welcome break from the stoic mode. On screen more and longer than Bale, permitted to act human once in a while, Worthington, like homeboy Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, steals the film away from Bale. Call it minimalist charisma.
[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 31 No. 4, July/August 1995]
The world is full of women who hunger for movies that unreel not Gawain’s but Guinevere’s gutsy quest to repair her own – and thus others’ – ”broken souls and psyches. The Round Table of peerless travelin’ ladies includes Bringing Up Baby‘s Katharine Hepburn, a vessel of dangerous anarchy into which her juiceless lover (Cary Grant) must dive to save them both from deathly extremes. And Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, scenting out the dark, devouring angel who will perversely father her into wholeness. Seat too the sadly underrated ClosetLand‘s Madeleine Stowe, who braves a lacerating descent into the “ultimate closet” of her own violated self, another brutal Janus-faced male her guide and confessor. And Sigourney Weaver’s tough mother, crucified for humankind at the end of the Alien trilogy in a fortunate fall into fire.
Such mythic passages for distaff knights are rare as hen’s teeth. Thank goddess for John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, a pell-mell adventure featuring a Lancelot who happens to be woman, doctor, and tragically bereaved mother and wife. The derailed tourists in this new film and David Lean’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India are sisters under the skin. But the real-as-headlines, yet timeless, journey Boorman’s Laura Bowman (Patricia Arquette) makes through alternately fecund and fatal Burma is “known” in her (and our) blood and nerve-endings.
In contrast, the “passage to more than India” that transforms bony, brainy Adele Quested (Judy Davis) is fueled by a drier, more metaphysical outrage. Immersed in an Otherness of her own making, Davis confronts the dark, heated disorder that reduces character and experience to a cosmic sound effect signifying nothing. By the time of A Passage to India‘s homecoming, Quested has matriculated into an older soul, worthy daughter of the cozily mystical Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) who, gazing into the moonspangled Ganges where corpses sometimes float, exclaims, “What a terrible river!” then, “What a wonderful river!” (Mrs. Moore’s cosmic opposites flow through every film by Boorman, an artist who acknowledges that his most abundant visions iris–out into darkness.)
Boorman’s quester beyond Rangoon sets out as a member of the walking dead, a fragged spirit barely tethered to her flesh, for whom the wheel of time, of life, has stalled. (The image of that wheel on monastery walls and as shadow on the ground at her very feet greenlights Laura’s eventual takeoff into “more than Burma.”) Early on, sightseeing a monumentally reclining, dreaming Buddha, Laura listens indifferently as their tour guide (Spalding Gray) puns on the Buddhists’ lack of belief in the soul by gesturing at the bottoms of the statue’s great feet, adorned by stories shaped in curving pictograms. Behind him, parents caution their son to come down from Buddha’s back. Boorman creates a visual schism between foreground religious studies and background actuality. The effect suggests the kind of Hitchcockian back–projection that often signaled psychic deracination for traumatized heroines such as Marnie or Kim Novak X2 in Vertigo.
Warner Home Video releases a quartet of DVD debuts, all with troubled critical histories: loved by some, disliked by many, largely ignored by most. And that’s what makes their arrivals so interesting: it gives us a chance, an excuse even, to revisit the films. That said, I’m up to my eyeballs in the Seattle International Film Festival and thus only had time to see one of them, but it was a revelation.
I originally met David Russo years ago, after his short film Pan With Us had won an Honorable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival. He was a friend of a friend and had joined us for a night out, where somehow David and I wound up arguing over art and critics. His position was the necessity of the former and the irrelevancy of the latter (he was the artist, I was the critic) and I took up the defense my profession, or at least my own approach. Curiously, it was one of the best conversations I’d ever had. It reminded me of why I got into the profession and what criticism should aspire to, searching out the great and good, looking for inspiration, celebrating what you find interesting and valuable. And it was enough to make a brief connection with an artist whose work I have continued to appreciate with each new film. His short films are beautiful pieces of cinematic sculpture, personal visions carved out of the world, and he brings that sense of craft and beauty and imagination to his feature debut, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle.
I’ll let Russo’s own words describe the film: “Male janitors becoming impregnated by experimental cookies that get warm in your mouth when eaten, and then giving birth to blue fish that only live mere moments afterwards. They have to pull together to become midwives for one another, and then deal with the loss and loneliness of miscarriage.” It’s of course about much more than that, including spiritual hunger and the drive to create and the strange life of late-night janitors (drawn largely from personal experience â€“ Russo was a janitor himself for eleven years). Some of the most vivid parts of the film are the side-effects of male pregnancy: cramps, cravings and visions like drug trips, the latter created by Russo in his distinctive, largely hand-made animation style.
Russo did not come out of art school or film school. He started making films for himself while still working as a janitor, slowly developing his art and his techniques, but rarely sharing them with audiences. “I NEVER wanted to be a feature filmmaker until I went to Sundance six years ago,” he explained in an E-mail interview I conducted with him back in January, while he was finishing post-production on Dizzle in preparation for its Sundance debut. “I enjoyed having a successful, professional career as a ‘Film Artist,’ but I guess the warrior side of me just needed even more of a challenge.”
The script for Dizzle was written in 2001, right before the invasion of Iraq, but the inspiration in many way came from a particular experience from his janitor days. “One night I found a miscarriage in one of the womenâ€™s room toilets.Â It changed me. Soon I got to thinking: what if something like that happened to men?” When Russo was awarded a “Start-to-Finish” grant by NWFF, he pulled out his script.
In preparation for a profile of David Russo and Dizzle that I wrote for the Seattle Weekly, I sat down with David and his wife, Celia, for a long brunch interview. You can read the profile on the Seattle Weekly website here. Only portions of the interview made into the feature, so here is the complete interview, wrestled into a kind of shape that makes it sound more organized than it really was.
You spent a long time trying to get this film off the ground. How did it finally get produced?
There’s a lot that I want to say. We spun our wheels for about two years until Peggy Case came on-board as producer. And then it lurched into production without anyone seeing where it came from, really. It was amazing. Because it was just a last ditch effort that we went to L.A. and held auditions. Just a last ditch effort. Well, we don’t have any money, we’re just going to go down there and make believe that we have money, so I got a hold of my commercial agent, got a beautiful office to hold these wonderful auditions, I saw hundreds and hundreds of actors, worked with each and every one of them. It was an opportunity for me to show to potential investors that I can relate to actors just fine. I was able to change and make performances no problem, it was wonderful. And after that, the thing just lurched. We had to shoot only three weeks after it was greenlit, because of the availability of certain actors, and it got greenlit out of nowhere. I wanted to shoot this in the winter or the autumn, I didn’t want to shoot in the middle of summer, a night movie, are you kidding, where we’re having to shoot graveyard during the solstice? It was a nightmare. I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to, and then just, bang. If I had it to do over again, I would have had six weeks of preparation and not just three, because it was chaos. I am amazed that we pulled it together. Think of all the locations that are in there, all of that had to be done. All the casting had to be done in that three weeks. So I was probably down on it for good reason, I probably understood that we were just spinning our wheels, but it was going and auditioning actors that really gave it the traction it needed to at least get done in some form. We never did raise all the money, but who does?
The complications and tricky negotiations of family, as siblings grow up and leave to establish their own lives and their own families, was a central theme of numerous films at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Two of the best films from that festival, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’ete) and Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, highlight the opening weekend of the 2009 edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.
[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technologyâ€”telephones, electric fans and smoking train enginesâ€”is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the â€œpastâ€ sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the â€œmodernâ€ sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.
The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative wordâ€”â€œelegiacâ€â€”seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.
Like many Ford filmsâ€”most obviously those dealing with the militaryâ€”Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
It may not be the best film of the week but this early Seijun Suzuki yakuza potboiler certainly sports the greatest title I’ve seen flash across my flatscreen all year: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards! The film, starring a cocky and cool Jo Shishido as a private detective (with a side job publishing a scandal rag) who hires himself out as an undercover agent to infiltrate a new gang in town for the local cops, is pure B-movie silliness and Suzuki knows it, plays with it, flaunts it. From the pre-credits sequence, where a gun sale (with weapons sold right off an American army base) turns into guns-a-blasting ambush by a rival gang that launches their assault from a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck that barrels through the swap like a tank, to the return engagement gang war that ends the film, this is all about turning a junky crime script into a blast of energy set against a backdrop of candy-colored sets and kitschy nightclub numbers and set to a score of growling pop music.
With his greased-back hair, dark glasses and pock-marked chubby cheeks, Jo Shishido hardly looks like a matinee idol but he pulls it off with sheer bravado. Shishido’s flippant attitude never falters, whether he’s talking his way into a job for the cops or ingratiating himself with a suspicious mob boss. When a nightclub singer almost blows his cover, he jumps into a duet to play for time. When his backstory (thrown together is rush of improvising) finally unravels, he doesn’t even flinch. He just offers a new service: playing double agent for the mysterious big boss. Suzuki directs it all with tongue-in-cheek attitude, not so much making fun of it as making it fun, playing out the by-the-number twists with bright, bubbly enthusiasm and devil may care energy. His later gangster movie parodies take on a genuinely genre-busting stylistic insanity. Here he’s content to just play up the conventions with a cheery self-awareness and the energy of a New Wave genre celebration. Kino’s widescreen disc preserves all that color with a bright, crisp clarity.
[Parts of the article previously appeared in Cinemonkey and as program notes for Cinema 7]
Film critics have never quite known what to make of John Huston; whether his work has been praised or disparaged, it has almost always inspired critical overkill. After a striking debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and a pair of studio assignments, Huston made several highly-regarded war documentaries. His fourth feature, Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), widely acclaimed as authentic film art (at a time when the phrase had little currency in discussions of American movies), inspired the most eloquent and passionate of Huston’s early defenders, James Agee, to write a now-classic Life magazine article, “Undirectable Director” (1950) summarizing Huston as follows:
The Maltese Falcon is the best private-eye melodrama ever made. San Pietro… is generally considered to be the finest of war documentaries. Treasure of Sierra Madre… is the clearest proof in perhaps twenty years that first-rate work can come out of the big commercial studios…. To put it conservatively, there is nobody under fifty at work in movies, here or abroad, who can excel Huston in talent, inventiveness, intransigence, achievement or promise.
Even at the time, Agee overstated Huston’s achievement and promise, both as to his career and individual films. And by the time of Moby Dick (1956), Huston had amply shown he could be erratic as well. But neither Agee nor anyone else could have predicted the calamitous late-50s decline that produced The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Roots of Heaven (both 1958), and The Unforgiven (1960), followed shortly by The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). Such a casually cynical mélange of the half-heartedly perfunctory and outright hackwork was bound to get a critical comeuppance. Andrew Sarris obliged, firing a famous broadside in the Huston chapter of the indispensable survey: The American Cinema. After casually noting that “James Agee canonized Huston prematurely” Sarris brought out the heavy artillery:
Huston is still coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi for every bad movie…Huston has confused indifference with integrity for such a long time that he is no longer the competent craftsman of The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, films that owe more to casting coups than to directorial acumen.
Sarris has subsequently reconsidered his polemical hyperbole, and doubtless regrets the peculiar suggestion that skill in casting has nothing to do with “directorial acumen.”
But Huston’s work has remained maddeningly variable, sometimes blowing hot and cold in the same film Keep Reading