Archive for Underworld

Hamburger Hill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-05-06-00h52m06s24

When I first began to read film reviews regularly, back in the eighties (gasp), a puzzlement was the high regard that (male) British critics had for figures like Clint Eastwood, John Milius and Walter Hill. A puzzlement because (a) the films didn’t seem to me to be that good and (b) the macho, what we would now call libertarian ethos (Hill & Milius I think called themselves right-wing anarchists) seemed like it would probably contrast fairly strongly with the politics and personalities of newsprint critics writing for The Guardian or The Independent or even The Sunday Times.

Allowing for simple variations in taste and that maybe I was just missing something, there could wel be a sort of nostalgia for the man’s-man drectors of the forties and fifties, who made some really excellent films, on which those critics were weaned. So maybe, if you’re starved on Ford and Hawks in the current releases, you would be more inclined to embrace Milius and Hill as the best available substitutes. But if the films are RED DAWN and EXTREME PREJUDICE, isn’t it a rather unsatisfying feast?

But having recently been blown away by DILLINGER, I get a better sense of the redeeming qualities of these gruff, cigar-chomping sociopath types. And Hill’s HARD TIMES, though not in the same league, is not bad. Handsome damn film, in fact.

vlcsnap-2014-05-06-00h51m23s132

Maybe there’s a weakness in the ending – basically bare-knuckle fighter Charles Bronson never loses a fight in the whole movie, which does eat away at the sense of jeopardy. Still, I felt undeniable tension at times. Maybe it’s not a question of jeopardy, so much as a feeling that if the good guys win, it neutralizes the title and robs the film of a sense of purpose. The all-round happy ending says “Everything’s fine!” in a way that bothers me. It ain’t CHINATOWN.

vlcsnap-2014-05-06-00h51m16s56

Still, the Coburn/Bronson voluble/taciturn double act is fine, and Strother Martin as “Poe” — supposedly a relative and certainly a fellow spirit of the famed writer — is a joy. Maybe Coburn is too cool to convince as, basically, a loser, with great dreams but a weakness for cards. Coburn is always effective on screen but not always complex — Peckinpah could muster some confusion and inner conflict, but I didn’t buy him as self-destructive here, except for plot reasons.

But I was impressed by how Melvillian it all was – Bronson in his hideous apartment with his stray cat – it’s clear that Melville was inspired heavily by THIS GUN FOR HIRE in which Alan Ladd gives milk to a cat, leading to Alain Delon’s canary in LE SAMOURAI. I wondered if Hill & co were also thinking of the milk & kitten motif in Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD, and given that James Coburn’s character here is called Weed, I think they probably were. What a complex interlacing of influences is at work!

vlcsnap-2014-05-06-00h50m44s226

LOVE Bronson’s apartment.

The Monday Intertitle: Moll Quiet

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-03-17-08h33m02s219

“I’m pretty influential as Lefty Hiroshi.”

Beautiful deco kanji in an intertitle from Ozu’s 1933 DRAGNET GIRL, screened at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. This may be becoming my favourite Ozu, but I have lots more still to see. I’m really an Ozu newbie. It was about ten years ago I saw a bunch of late ones screened on Film4, and made a point of catching up with TOKYO STORY, but the ones I’ve seen outside of those experiences mean more to me.

Chris Fujiwara, introducing the film, suggested that the large number of intertitles in the film may have been Ozu’s way of constraining the benshi, those sometimes-overzealous film describers who had a tendency to not just read out the titles for the benefit of non-readers, but to embellish the plots and elucidate the subtext and supply the thoughts of every character. They would scarcely have time in this movie.

hippodrome-dragnet-girl

Image from here.

DRAGNET GIRL was screened with a live score by Jane Gardner, whose accompaniment of THE GOOSE WOMAN last year was a highlight. I found a couple of the scores on Saturday to be over-amplified — the venue is small and has excellent acoustics anyway. THE LAST LAUGH screened with a new arrangement of the original score, which was absolutely brilliant, but the violin and whistle could be a little piercing. Ozu is usually thought of as “restrained” and “minimalist” (not to mention “transcendent”) and if that were true of DRAGNET GIRL the piano, violin and percussion score would have been too lush, emotive and emphatic. But this middle period film is, as Chris said, very *free* — Ozu allows himself more camera movement, much of it lateral (the movie poster on the wall in the background for ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT suggests where that may have come from; otherwise, Sternberg and UNDERWORLD and the lost DRAGNET are clearly influences) but one shot rotating slowly around a big white coffee pot (symbol of the decadent western influence, we are told) rather like a prototype for the cuts in later films which will pivot our perspective around an orienting object such as a red kettle.

vlcsnap-2014-03-16-14h32m45s144

And this is a crime melodrama — albeit one which avoids most of the possible cues for melodramatic incidents, admittedly. What looks like being a hit by typist/moll Kinuyo Tanaka upon her romantic rival, is averted by a girl-on-girl kiss which has as much impact — and is presented with even more aversion of the camera eye to protect the innocent — as an assassination would in a conventional gangster flick. But things do eventually reach a pitch of high tension and jeopardy, as our heroes go on the lam after a heist (really the only bit of crime-for-profit glimpsed in the movie).

And so the score seemed an apt expression of the emotions lurking just beneath the polite surface of the characters. And it was absolutely beautiful, which is important, because so’s the film.

I must have a word with Jane to see if I can get copies of her stuff so I can walk around with it playing in my head.

Quote of the Day: an indifferent work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2008 by dcairns

the_blue_angel

I’m always evangelising for Josef Von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, which I think is THE movie autobio, acting not only as a life story (probably it could be surpassed easily on this score) but as a Rosetta Stone to the filmmaker’s work. Since I enjoyed Sternberg’s writing so much, it’s odd that I hadn’t realised that there’s more out there:

JVS’s intro to the published script of DER BLAU ENGEL is a treat: concentrated Sternberg. Only a few pages, but packed with nutrition. Here’s the great man, rubbishing his own first talkie, THUNDERBOLT, made just before his German jaunt.

vlcsnap-337326

“I had just finished my first sound film, and indifferent work featuring an actor whose temporary fame was sustained by a so-called silent film called UNDERWORLD. The entire cast was inferior, all of them unable to even echo my instructions. There was some good warbling in the death row where most of the action took place, but I looked forward with pleasure to making a sound film in Germany. I was not aware, of course, that Europe had only the most primitive method of adding sound to a quite elaborate camerawork which would cause me a lot of trouble. Incidentally, the silent films had never been silent — a piano tinkled, an organ moaned or an orchestra thundered out music that rarely helped the silent film.”

I like how he omits to name the actor (George Bancroft) out of “tact”, nor the director of the film which shot him to fame (Von Sternberg himself) out of “modesty”. His other inferior actors include the splendid Fay Wray. The reference to warbling on death row may confuse the unwary, but THUNDERBOLT does indeed feature a male voice choir harmonising by the death cell. “I thought I had that quartet broken up,” complains the warden, Tully Marshall, “but I no sooner get rid of one that they send me another.”

“Do you sing tenor?” a prisoner asks Bancroft. “Me? I kill tenors.”

vlcsnap-340407

Sternberg is too harsh about this mad bastard of a film. Although my copy of this ultra-rare escapee from oblivion is almost inaudible and invisible, it’s noticeably a strange and memorable piece of work. George Bancroft is an unlikely leading man, it’s true, with his bulbous frame and face, and his oily dog of a hairdo; and his acting style is even stranger than his appearance. Dragging every word out so that you fear he might forget the second syllable of “Goodbye” before he’s finished painstakingly enunciating the first, he nevertheless exudes menace and a certain kind of dilatory gusto. Fay Wray is a little posh for a gangster’s moll, and it’s a shame the poor pic quality prevents us from seeing what Sternberg’s lighting is doing for her (being the palest cast member, she disappears into a white smear). Tully Marshall, memorably seedy as a moth-eaten count in my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, is fantastically snarky and craven as the prison warden. Richard Arlen is fine.

Why is Richard Arlen imprisoned in Channel 4 television? His cell has the exact logo.

vlcsnap-341054

In some respects the film plays like a remake of UNDERWORLD, with Bancroft as gangster Jim “Thunderbolt” Lang. (In UNDERWORLD he plays gangster Bull Weed. Two names not often found in one individual, as Sternberg said of “Maria Magdalene” Dietrich. George Bancroft may have had the manliest, ugliest character names of an actor! A selection: Blake Greeson; Mug; The Wolf; Cannonball Casey; Bert the Boxman; Lesher Skidmore; Brock Trumbull; Stag Bailey; Elmer Beebe; William Waldo; Dudley ‘Dud’ Garrett; Sheriff Claude Stagg; Major Burdle; Dr Clem Driscoll; Captain Ira “Hell-Ship” Morgan; Enoch Thurman; Two-Gun Nolan; Buck Lockwell; Dan Angus; Lem Tolliver; Windy Miller. Well, I suppose, looking like he does, he was unlikely to ever find himself called Alphonse Maria LeFanu.)

Sternberg starts off with one of his trademark sleazy dives, The Black Cat. It’s a pleasingly multi-racial establishment (uniquely so, for its era) with some superb extras:

vlcsnap-337739

Amazing physical performance from the unnamed gum-chewing maitre’d lady.

vlcsnap-338182

This guy has no head, just a sort of fat skull, crossed with a football. He’s awesome. His friend, who has plenty of dialogue, delivers it all from behind that structure, for some reason.

The soundscape within The Black Cat is… distinctive. The band plays louder than the actors’ can talk, and every now and then both are interrupted by a shrilly yodelling cackle, adding “atmosphere”. Impressionistically, it’s quite a lot like a real nightclub. I hate nightclubs, except in films.

The plot is by Jules Furthman, who would write several later Sternberg classics from MOROCCO to JET PILOT, with his brother Charles. Jules also worked regularly with Howard Hawks over the years, part of the obscure bond between Sternberg and hawks, two superficially quite dissimilar artists.

The plot: having resolved to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, Thunderbolt is inadvertently betrayed by a stray dog, and sent to death row for his many crimes. He gets to take the dog with him, for added pathos. Resolving to carry out his revenge killing, “poisonal”, he arranges for the beau to be framed for a bank robbery. Then he clears the guy’s name. but this is all part of the most baroque, elaborate vengeance scheme ever, for when the guy steps up to the bars to shake his hand, he’s going to grab him by the throat and –

vlcsnap-341280

– squee–ee–eeze…

Dialogue is by Herman Mankiewicz, of CITIZEN KANE fame. Herman once famously engineered his firing from an assignment by writing a scene where Rin Tin Tin the wonder dog carries a baby into a burning building, and here he seems hell-bent on getting fired again, writing staggeringly insane dialogue that attains a kind of crack-brained poetry. (“I was absolutely on the level until me twelfth birthday. And after that… nothing much happened until I was twenty-seven.”) Bancroft spends most of the film trying to guess his jailor’s name, and when he finally learns it — Aloysius — goes to the electric chair laughing merrily.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 437 other followers