Shoot First, Die Later (Raro), a 1974 picture from Italian gangster specialist Fernando di Leo, stars Luc Merenda as Domenico Malacarne, a hotshot cop on the Milan strike force. Young, good looking, at the center of big, dangerous cases, he is the department poster boy for police heroism.
Domenico kicks off the film with a volatile undercover assignment and a ferocious car chase that rivals The French Connection. Just the thing to introduce him as an ambitious hero with a penchant for muscular assignments and brazen action. Little does the media or his own father, a modest and idealistic career cop, know that he’s on the take. Not until a modest request from the mob puts him in a compromising position and his father in the cross-hairs of the mob.
This is another of di Leo’s gritty, violent dives into the underworld (see Fernando di Leo Crime Collection, reviewed on Parallax View here), but this time the conflicts are more personal. Domenico of course gets pulled farther into the tentacles of mob demands, and he’s tainted enough to know there are some things he can’t refuse. But when his old man is killed by a local lieutenant cleaning up loose ends of a minor conflict, Merenda goes on a mission of revenge against the mob and its business-like boss (Richard Conte), who negotiates the crisis with ruthless aplomb after his underlings botch the job. The characters aren’t as distinctive or interesting as other di Leo crime films but the brutal business of mob enforcement is executed with unflinching directness. They don’t simply take care of an inconvenient witness, they complete the job by taking out the man’s beloved cat with the same weapon.
Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 6 (Warner Archive) and Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7 (Warner Archive) continue to showcase the best, sauciest, and most surprising films made before the Production Code forced Hollywood to clean up the screen. At their best, or at least their most memorable, they flaunted the sexual play of unmarried couples (and worse, the affairs of married characters with other partners), the flagrant boozing at the height of prohibition, and the thrill of bad behavior, which it presented without the requisite lessons learned. And in this case, they saved the best for last. Or at least for seventh.
Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7 (Warner Archive) is the collection I’ve been waiting for. It features two of my favorite pre-code discoveries, Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933), both starring Warren William in his silver fox phase: the big business tycoon who’s a shark at work and a wolf with the women, putting the moves on the youngest and prettiest girls around. This is the era of kept women and philandering men and these films revel in his alpha male aggressiveness in the boardroom and on the prowl.
Skyscraper Souls, directed by Edgar Selwyn, stars William as a New York banker and corporate gambler whose financial empire is centered in his beloved 100-story skyscraper (a phallic tower of his power just two stories shy of the Empire State Building), where he not only works but lives in a penthouse apartment. Maureen O’Sullivan is the fresh young beauty he picks out of the secretarial pool to replace his longtime mistress (Verree Teasdale), who is also his personal assistant. He juggles finances the same way he does women, and isn’t above lying in either arena, which is why the bank examiners are looking into a dubious loan he made to himself to finance the building.
The pre-code era was famed for its films that pushed the envelope of sex with racy suggestiveness and Skyscraper Souls just oozes with lust and overflows with affairs, but the mercenary business dealings are just as forbidden here. William is a depression-era Gordon Gekko obsessed with building his own empire at any cost. O’Sullivan came to the film fresh from “Tarzan the Ape Man” and her wardrobe is almost as skimpy in a couple of scenes here. But she’s no simple innocent sullied, despite William’s predatory pressure. Everyone is compromised here.
Employees’ Entrance (1933) is a perfect companion piece. This one, directed by Roy Del Roy, is set in a metropolitan department store with William playing the manager in the same corporate captain manner — “My code is smash… or be smashed!” he tells the board of directors, and he follows through with a ruthless business code that allows no sentiment — and Loretta Young as the comely model that he dallies with but refuses to commit to. The store is his true mistress and his life. Wallace Ford is the ambitious young clerk with bright ideas who is also wooing Young while William grooms him in his own image. The film packs a lot of conflict and bad behavior (not to mention a stock market crash and a suicide) in 75 minutes. William is both hero and villain, ruining businesses and lives as he cancels contracts and fires employees when they fail to live up to his standards, and he is suave yet ferocious in the part.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed in Neil Jordan’s second coming to the vampire myth, Byzantium. Even seen solely as a vampire film Byzantium far surpasses Jordan’s 1994 Interview with the Vampire—and pretty much everything else in the genre. But while Jordan’s and scenarist Moira Buffini’s expansion of Buffini’s stage play A Vampire Story can be enjoyed as a straightforward—albeit narratively complex—vampire tale, it is much more. The familiar tropes of vampire lore (to which Irish folklore has contributed at least as much as middle-European) become, under Jordan’s skilled hand and eye, haunting visual metaphors for the tyranny of the body, the marginalization of the outsider, the economic suppression of Ireland, the subjection of women, and, most importantly, the means of rebellion against all of these. Vampires and whores, predators and victims—how can we tell the dancer from the dance?
In Byzantium, Jordan works wonders setting his outsiders apart from the environment they only half inhabit, while out-of-focus light sources dance in the background like leukocytes under a microscope. And when he isn’t creating conflicting layers with long lenses, he is choreographing motion on two or three planes of deep-focus activity. Background action cuts the vectors of foreground characters, which are themselves cut by the moving camera, keeping the viewing eye constantly alive, the viewing mind constantly questioning which movements are real and which are only suggested. One amazing shot, a lateral track of a beach conversation between two characters with a line of fishing boats moored behind them moves along the line of boats, gradually seeming to forget the characters altogether (and enabling us to do so as well), arriving at one boat boldly named “Our Lady,” then suddenly reverses its movement, as if the camera, Jordan’s eye, our eye, has gone too far, done too much, forgotten what it is about, and returns to the characters as if little or nothing had happened. It’s a delicious detail in an endlessly delicious movie, a celebration of color and light, a matrix of Irish anger and Irish love, with a satisfying, thrilling rightness about every move, gesture, and event. And if you remember that Bram Stoker was Irish, and that a guy named Yeats wrote poems about Irish rebellion and about a place called Byzantium—well, so much the better.
“I have become an individual with a DV camera…it was DV that saved me, that allowed me to maintain a kind of personal relationship to documentary filmmaking, and made it far more than just an identity.” Inspired by a current MOMA retrospective, Aaron Cutler takes stock of 25 years of independent Chinese documentaries, a movement influenced by Japanese filmmaker Shinsuke Ogawa and American Frederick Wiseman, and (as Wu Wenguang’s words quoted above attest) altered forever by the introduction of light, affordable DV cameras.
“Redford was born in Santa Monica, because of course he was. His father was a milkman but, in a page straight from the American Dream handbook, eventually became an accountant, moving his family to Van Nuys. There, Redford played on the high school baseball team and, if looks are to be believed, slayed the entire female population.” Anne Helen Petersen is pretty terrific on the appeal of Robert Redford—and his limitations.
“Her Bride was certainly a success, but it was such extreme work that it led nowhere—she had been too weird in the part, too scary and sexually offbeat for easy casting.” Which is why many of Elsa Lanchester’s Hollywood roles merely tossed her in the shadow or sidelines of her leading-man husband; but she stood out even there, as Dan Callahan relates.
Greta Gerwig (left) and Mickey Sumner romp through the city
From her earliest mumblecore movies, something about Greta Gerwig didn’t quite fit the scene. Here were these lo-fi indie efforts (including LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Baghead), nobly scruffy around the edges, intended as the antitheses of Hollywood—and right in the middle of them was a movie star.
Hard to miss it: Gerwig may have been an unknown, but she had crack timing and silent-movie eyes. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, she jumped off the screen at you. Non-mumbly filmmaker Noah Baumbach took note and cast Gerwig in his caustic Greenberg, a move that led to a personal and professional partnership between the two.
The fruit of this is Baumbach’s Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Gerwig, an unabashed tribute to the actress’ distinctive (don’t you dare say “quirky”) charms. The outline of a typical indie picture is in place, as we follow 27-year-old Frances and her New York apartment-hopping over the course of a few months. Frances dreams of being a dancer, as though nobody’d told her that if you haven’t made it as a dancer by 27, your dream should probably be in the past tense. (Actually, somebody probably told her. But her go-with-the-flow optimism is undaunted by such realities.)
French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928 (Flicker Alley) presents of the stateside DVD debut of five silent classics from Film Albatros, a French studio founded by Russian artists: The Burning Crucible, Kean, The Late Mathias Pascal, Gribiche, and The New Gentlemen.
Three of the films star Ivan Mosjoukine, the great Russian actor who fled the revolution and landed in Paris, and the other two are directed by Jacques Feyder. All of them are examples of the sophisticated filmmaking coming out of France in the twenties.
Which is not to say that they are all masterpieces — The Burning Crucible (1923), which not only stars Mosjoukine but is written and directed by the actor, is inventive and full of lively images and playful techniques but is all over the place and jumps willy-nilly through styles and episodes — but they are all tremendously entertaining and full of filmmaking energy. Mosjoukine plays eleven roles in The Burning Crucible, including the leading role of Detective Z, a man of many disguises, and Mosjoukine the director rolls Russian formalism, German expressionism, and French surrealism together in a simplistic but richly imaginative story that at times borders on craziness of Louis Feuillade’s serials of the previous decade.
Mosjoukine also stars in Kean (1924) as the great 19th century stage actor Edmund Kean and in The Late Mathias Pascal (1926), the fantasy epic directed by Marcel L’Herbier that Flicker Alley released on Blu-ray earlier this year. I reviewed it for Videodrone here.
The final pair of films in the set are from Jacques Feyder.
Director William Witney sits on the edge of the camera platform at Republic Pictures in Studio City, California, circa 1930s
R. Emmet Sweeney’s profile of William Witney goes beyond just signing on to Tarantino’s endorsement. He paints the picture of a young man lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time—when your coworkers could include Yakima Canutt, and a friendly visit to Busby Berkeley’s set could show you a whole new way to choreograph movie action—but ambitious and creative enough to keep pressing on for decades, tossing out inventive picture after inventive picture to no one’s particular notice.
“Scott did not concentrate on set pieces so much as approach an entire film with a tonality that extended to cutaways and connecting shots, all of which were dealt with at the same register of glossy enormity, so the opening of a car door exuded the same visual verve and finesse as any larger action scene.” Joseph Bevan’s take on Tony Scott balances admiration for his expressionistic, experimental visuals with dismay at his callous disregard for narrative, character, or decency.
The 39th Annual Seattle International Film Festival opens on Thursday, May 16, with a screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and complete its 25-day run on Sunday, June 9 with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring as the Closing Night Film. Here is Parallax View’s coverage and guide to SIFF resources for all 25 days.
François Ozon’s parents were schoolteachers. That could account for the slyly mixed feelings he shows toward the protagonist of his new film. Meet Germain, a high-school teacher whose commitment to his profession is tested by his boredom, his frustrated dreams of being a writer, and the seductive series of papers turned in by a precocious student.
Not “seductive” in the obvious sense—the movie’s got more on its mind than an inappropriate affair. What Germain (Fabrice Luchini) sees in the serial narrative written by Claude (Ernst Umhauer) is a spark of talent, a reason to invest himself in a student, and a string of cliffhangers that have him—and eventually his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)—waiting breathlessly for each new installment.
The device at the heart of Graceland is unsavory but gripping: A flunky for a crooked politician is driving his daughter and his boss’ daughter home from school when kidnappers pounce. The baddies immediately kill one of the girls and drive away with the other, a huge ransom demand trailing in their wake.
The twist? The kidnappers have killed the wrong girl, and the driver is the only person who knows that his daughter, not the rich guy’s kid, is the one held captive. As it happens, this is not the only twist waiting in Ron Morales’ Graceland, a Philippine suspense picture that puts the hammer down, hard.
Leah Warshawski didn’t set out for a movie career. “I got into it because I worked on a boat in college,” recalls the co-director of Finding Hillywood, speaking by phone from a shoot in Idaho. She was studying Japanese at the University of Hawaii when the marine coordinator of the 2003 TV movie Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding hired her for his crew. “I actually didn’t know anything about it at all, but he hired me as his assistant for a couple of pretty big movies, and I learned a lot from him.” She decided she wanted to become a producer, so she continued working on TV shows like Survivor: Fiji and Lost and corporate videos. “My film school was working, and I’m still learning.”
A project for Microsoft brought her to Seattle and then sent her to Rwanda, where she found Hillywood. No, it’s not Rwanda’s answer to Bollywood, but a traveling film festival that screens films made by, about, and for Rwandans. Free movies are projected on an inflatable screen in rural areas—often near mass graves from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis by the majority Hutus.
“We didn’t believe it,” recalls Warshawski. “People show up with no shoes, in all kinds of inclement weather. They walk for miles and stand together in this precarious situation where you don’t know who you’re standing next to”—meaning Hutu perpetrator or Tutsi survivor. “There’s a huge issue of trust there still, years after the genocide. And that’s a little different than going to Sundance.”
Delmer Daves was a Hollywood pro with a long career and an impressive filmography. He established himself as a screenwriter with a series of light comedies and romantic melodramas (including the original 1939 Love Affair) before stepping behind the camera with the World War II adventure Destination Tokyo. Like most directors of his era, he moved easily between all genres – war pictures, romances, melodrama, and a few noir-inflected dramas (The Red House and Dark Passage), but he proved his affinity for the western from his very first effort in the genre, the 1950 classic Broken Arrow. Along with his fine eye for imagery, Daves brought a psychological dimension and an adult sensibility to his westerns. In his best films, his characters had relationships and emotions that came out of real life.
Criterion’s stamp on two of his most interesting westerns may help bring a little more attention to the director. Jubal (Criterion) is the first of three westerns Daves made with actor Glenn Ford, already a seasoned western presence by 1956. Here he’s an itinerate cowhand and a wary loner hired by rancher Ernest Borgnine, a garrulous, generous guy who becomes both father figure and best friend to the emotionally bottled up cowhand. It’s been called “Othello” on the range, with Rod Steiger as the bitter ranch hand playing Iago to Borgnine’s Othello, but the Desdemona of this piece is no innocent victim but a dark, exotic beauty (she’s Canadian, apparently to explain away Valerie French’s accent) in a stifling marriage to the sincere but crude and boisterous cattleman. Young and deeply disenchanted, she sets her eyes on the simple, stoic cowboy.
Ernest Borgine, Valerie French, and Glenn Ford
This is less a Shakespeare western than a Hollywood melodrama in chaps and Daves was a seasoned hand at both genres. He favors suspense to action and violence, tightening the tension until Steiger (himself spurned by French) finally pushes his boss over the edge and the cycle of violence begins. Even then, the violence is brief and abrupt and Daves leaves the most brutal assault offscreen. Noah Beery Jr. and John Dierkes offer easy-going support as Ford’s friendly bunkmates and fellow cowhands and Charles Bronson takes a small but key role as a plain-speaking cowhand whose loyalty to Ford’s Jubal is unshakable even when Steiger turns the town against him. Daves brings out Bronson’s easy-going humor and understated style, a side so rarely tapped by other directors.
First ‘Parade’s End,’ now ‘Rectify’—Adelaide Clemens is one of the best things to happen to 2013. Nor is Aden Young, at right, to be sneezed at.
Framing Pictures will be staring down the opening weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival. That’s right, the talkmeisters convene Friday, May 17, 5 p.m. at Northwest Film Forum for their monthly mulling over of movies new and old. Emend that: screen experiences new and old, because part of the evening will be devoted to Ray McKinnon’s provocative Sundance Channel series Rectify. NWFF will be starting a week’s run of the 1981 Jacques Rivette film Le Pont du Nord, so that’s on the agenda as well. Maybe Robert Horton will beam fondly on another French picture: he really digs Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air. And if all this is sounding too rarefied, how about the Leonardo DiCaprio version of The Great Gatsby?
Talk is cheap. Fact is, it’s free, and of course freewheeling. Come join in. 1515 12th Ave., between Pine and Pike.
As the story goes, Ray Harryhausen was inspired to explore the possibilities of stop-motion animation after seeing King Kong with his best friend. That said friend was Ray Bradbury makes the story irresistible. That Harryhausen went on to apprentice under Willis O’Brien, the very man who sculpted and animated the king of the jungle and the first great artist of stop-motion magic, makes it legend.
Across the web, tributes and remembrances have been legion, and no surprise. Harryhausen’s creations dazzled so many future film critics and historians in their formative years and turned many a movie-hungry child into a genre hound. He wasn’t a film director, not in the conventional sense, but he was undeniably the auteur of his films since The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, when he turned producer and started developing his own productions around the glorious creations he crafted to life in the adventures.
Just a few months ago, I had the pleasure of revisiting some of Harryhausen’s greatest moments for an article. And once again, just as when I was a kid, I was transported when his creatures came alive on the screen. I was never “fooled” into thinking his Cyclops or prehistoric dinosaur or dueling skeletons were real in any way. His movie magic wasn’t great because it was realistic. It was great because it was beautiful, alive, and filled with character and personality. He filled his films with wonder.
Ray Harryhausen died last week at the age of 92. He had essentially retired from filmmaking after Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version, not the terrible CGI remake) but he spent his final decades seeing a new generation discover his films on video and DVD. He put out books, talked about his work disc releases, and appeared at festivals and conventions, where he was unfailingly generous with his time when talking to fans, old and new. I was one of the older ones, but more moving than getting a few minutes of his time was watching him encourage a young fan, a kid around 10 or 12, to follow his muse and create.
Here are my ten picks for celebrating the legacy the ray Harryhausen, one of the great dreamers of the movies. Most of these, by the way, are only available on disc, so please, give a little love to your friendly neighborhood video store.
Mighty Joe Young
1 – “Mighty Joe Young” (1949, DVD, Warner) – Fifteen years after “King Kong,” Willis O’Brien won finally won his much deserved Oscar for creating yet another ape, this one the humongous playmate of Terry Moore. Joe is a marvelous creation and the climax, where he risks his own safety to rescue children trapped in an orphanage fire is as touching as it is thrilling. Harryhausen, an ambitious young animator who had worked on George Pal Puppetoons and military shorts, worked with his hero for the first and only time and pays tribute to O’Brien on the DVD commentary track.
2 – “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953, DVD, Warner) – One of the essentials of the giant monster on the rampage of the nuclear 1950s, this isn’t an atomic mutation but a slumbering prehistoric giant (a Rhedosauras, to be specific) awakened from its icy suspended animation by nuclear tests. The first creature feature work by legendary stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen is a dinosaur spectacle dropped in the urban jungle and it highlights this clunky but endearing piece of B-movie pulp “inspired” by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn.” Harryhausen give this rampaging beast just a touch of melancholy: a lost creature just looking for home.
There are several flippant ways to respond to Quentin Tarantino’s remarks about John Ford’s purported racism, from gruff dismissal to just tossing out Sergeant Rutledge and calling it a day. Kent Jones offers the thoughtful response, and it’s definitive. Also at Film Comment, subversion of a less haunted, more joyously playful sort, in Maitland McDonagh’s salute to “godfather of gay porn” Peter de Rome.
Carmel Magazine’s Rebecca L. Knight makes it sound as if there are very few afternoons more delightful than one spent in the company of Joan Fontaine, whether the legend is making sure you get a selection of roses from her garden or proudly showing off the golf trophy she received for a hole-in-one. (It’s on the shelf above her Oscar: “Oh yes, well there’s that.”) Beginning on page 82. Via Eileen Orr.
Dolby’s last attempt at introducing a new sound system, the failed 7.1, added two more sound channels to 5.1’s six. Their latest, Atmos, offers 64, including the ceiling. Jeff Smith explains the potential and offers an assessment in a guest post at David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog. In a separate post Thompson uses the failure ofJack the Giant Slayer to argue, contra Hollywood marketing, that there’s really no such thing as a “Fantasy fan.”