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Ralph Meeker

Blu-ray: ‘Something Wild’ (1962) on The Criterion Collection

Criterion

Not to be confused with the Jonathan Demme screwball comedy/thriller by the same name, the 1962 Something Wild (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is an unusually frank drama about a teenage girl recovering from rape.

The film opens on the assault, a non-explicit scene that communicates both the violence of the rape and the terrible sense of violation and helplessness felt by Mary Ann (Carroll Baker), a New York middle-class girl who is attacked on the way home from school. Director Jack Garfein, who adapted the screenplay from the novel “Mary Ann” with author Alex Karmel, presents the ordeal in impressionistic fragments and discomforting close-ups and the aftermath, as she picks herself off and shuffles home, in a long, wordless scene sensitive to the nuances of her experience. The tactile presentation of the physical details (a skirt shoved up over her thigh, a sharp rock poking into her leg, bending to pick up the modest crucifix ripped from her neck and tossed to the ground) doesn’t just channel the sensory experience, it suggests the fragments of the ordeal that Mary Ann’s mind latches on amidst the horror of violation. More than fifty years later it is still startling and affecting, a simple yet evocative cinematic suggestion of ordeal too terrible to show.

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Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

StValentines

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

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Review: Brannigan

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

There’s some terrific supporting material in that cast list, but everybody onscreen looks, and has excellent reason for feeling, pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. Brannigan is the sort of picture that gives John Wayne movies a bad name. Come to think of it, Brannigan is a bad name: it’s locked right in on the monolithic image of Wayne as 110-percent American tough guy with two fists and only one operational brain lobe, and whenever it takes four scriptwriters to come up with that kind of arithmetic, somebody’s in trouble.

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‘Run of the Arrow’: Birth Pangs of the United States

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

As with many of Fuller’s films, Run of the Arrow is finally about nothing less that the United States, even though it is “just” a Western. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps the most conventionally “Western” of Fuller’s Westerns, the only one that really utilizes the redrock and sagebrush landscapes that one associates with the West of directors like Mann, Ford, and Walsh (compare, for instance, Colorado Territory‘s forbidding geography to the contours of real and potential space that encompasses a quest in Run of the Arrow), and the only one that is in color—vivid color, bright with eye-catching primary hues that become motifs on the political and historical canvas of Fuller’s story. Blood is red, and so are the stripes of the American Flag that O’Meara (Rod Steiger), a bitter Confederate soldier who leaves his home after the war. and seeks out a viable identity as a Sioux Indian, initially rejects and later accepts as his. The uniforms and wagons of the cavalry are blue, and so are the feathers on the lance of Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson), the Sioux chief whose tribe defeats that band of cavalry; so, for that matter, are the blueprints for a new fort to go up in the middle of the Sioux nation most definitely blue, creating an analogy between plans for this specific outpost and the manifest destiny blueprinted in the more encompassing vision of an America moving ever westward.

The film’s themes, which intertwine, support and counterpoint each other, operate on this dual level of significance; the personal crises of identity and the more far-reaching problems of national unity are the components of Fuller’s vision, a cumulatively dark picture of the forces that drove men west to expand the boundaries of their country. The story itself has a sinister way of revolving in ever tightening circles around the antagonism between O’Meara and Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the Yankee officer whom O’Meara wounds with the last bullet fired in the Civil War. They meet up again out West, Driscoll as the leader of a detachment of cavalry commissioned to guard some Army engineers who intend to build a fort in Sioux territory, O’Meara as a scout for the Indians. A parallel conflict springs up between Driscoll and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), the latter a stabilizing force in a world that balances the self-hating O’Mearas against the vicious opportunists like Driscoll. Clark’s strength becomes the most reliable core of value in the film, shoring up the foundations of a reasonable patriotism that will endure beyond both the reactionary ethics of the old Sioux scout Walking Coyote (“I don’t know what this world’s coming to,” he says as a party of young bucks get drunk and prepare to string him up) and Driscoll’s incipient fascism. Clark’s spiel to O’Meara questioning O’Meara’s rejection of home and flag and ending with the parable of Philip Knowland, the man without a country (done all in one breathless take, the only movement being an honest and unashamed nudge to a slightly closer shot when the legend of Knowland is invoked) is eloquent enough to rise high above the platform jingoism of a flag-waving patriot, and is indeed infused with an almost Fordian sense of privileged participation. It counterpoints the more patly violent and potently chaotic aspects of Fuller’s films, offering us an openness and resilience that seems as essentially Fullerian as his attention-grabbing visual style and volatile worldview.

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Review: Food of the Gods

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Bert I. Gordon’s initials form a whimsically appropriate acronym for the work of a man whose directorial stock-in-trade since the middle Fifties has been giantism. This time he has served up another “portion” of H.G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods, on which his 1965 Village of the Giants was also loosely based. The premise of the story involves the creation, by vengeful Nature, of a pasty substance that seeps out of the hillside on a small Canadian island, causing giantism in creatures that eat the stuff. This gives Gordon the opportunity to dwell on giant wasps, rats, chickens (?!), and a few other goodies (one of which, in the film’s only high point, is discovered by Ida Lupino behind a row of Mason jars on a cupboard shelf and is sure to delight anyone who’s ever reached into a dark area, afraid of finding something unpleasant). The wasps are animated-in à la Hitchcock’s The Birds; the chicken is a model; the rats are real, shot in closeup and writ large into the world of human beings via rear projection and matte work. But the detail of Gordon’s extreme-closeup work on the rats—though it maintains the illusion of size and generally conceals the model and matte work—leads to poor perception of spatial relationships and a frustratingly shallow depth of field: A big rat, yes: but where is he in relation to the players, and to the other rats we just saw in the preceding shot? In most cases, there’s no telling. Further, the bigness of Gordon’s creatures, unlike that of Wells’s, is not matched by a similar bigness of idea. Little attention is paid to the script’s early, labored explanation that the food of the gods has no effect on adult animals but causes overgrowth only in juveniles. And a pregnant woman who—logic demands—is in the story so that her infant will somehow ingest the “F.O.T.G.” and grow large (something like this happens in Wells’s novel), ultimately serves no dramatic purpose at all, except to give birth at the height of a rat attack, under even less comfortable circumstances than Melanie Wilkes.

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The Strange Case of Brit-Noir and British B movies on VCI

VCI, a DVD label that rose out of PD films and second-tier films of the past, has been turning yeoman’s work of releasing obscure movies on DVD into a remarkable job at unearthing and presenting the real B-movie, programmers and forgotten low-budget film of the forties, fifties and sixties, with an emphasis on crime, mystery and noir. Some of the most interesting finds have come from their relationship with Renown Pictures, many of them branded “”Best of!” British Classics” (I don’t understand the curious quotes an punctuation either), others bundled under vaguely titled double features and triple features of “British Film Noir” or “Crime Thrillers.”

Which, mind you, is not to say that the films themselves are all (or most or even often) remarkable. Many of the films branded “British Film Noir” are only vaguely related to the American genre while some of the films in other collections are more in tune with the style and/or sensibility of American film noir. Many are forgotten for a good reason. And the technical quality of these releases varies wildly, from good prints and decent masters to substandard prints and indifferent, noisy digital masters.

But these releases are a window into a particular strain of filmmaking almost forgotten in the lazy and usually incorrect branding of “B-movie” on low budget films from Hollywood and elsewhere. And periodically, they unearth a minor classic, a forgotten gem or a fascinating artifact excavated from the archives.

Here are a few of the more interesting releases of late, beginning with Candlelight in Algeria (1944), the latest release of a “VCI “Best of!” British Classics” branded programmer.

Before James Mason found international success and caught the eye of American filmmakers in films like The Seventh Veil and Odd Man Out, he was a very busy actor in the British film industry, working his way up from supporting roles to leading men. This snappy 1944 espionage thriller, made on a budget comparable to an ambitious American B movie, finds romantic adventure in wartime intrigue in Algiers as Mason flees the Nazis with vital information for the Allies, or so he tells the American girl (Carla Lehman) who becomes his ally. As she becomes entwined with a smitten French Vichy officer and a cagey Nazi spy hunter (Walter Rilla), Mason slips in and out of her life in various undercover identities (and a mustache that our heroine rightly ridicules) to get secret plans to the Allies necessary for the planning of the invasion of North Africa.

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