Archive for Dario Argento

Frankie and Trevor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2022 by dcairns

I had vague positive boyhood memories of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS — it turned out I had slightly conflated my memory of Frank Sinatra running for a train with a scene from THE 5-MAN ARMY, the Argento-scripted spaghetti western in which Tetsurô Tanba runs for a train FOR A LONG TIME. You couldn’t possibly get Frank Sinatra to run that long. This meant that the film’s surprising and effective ending was surprising and effective all over again. You wouldn’t get an ending like that now. Already, in 1965, US cinema is groping towards the downer endings of the 70s.

This may be Mark Robson’s best film after his Val Lewton phase. (Or maybe CHAMPION, PHFFT or PEYTON PLACE?) It’s THE GREAT ESCAPE on a train, basically. And I guess TGE made that ending conceivable. It even has John Leyton in it, and he doesn’t go everywhere, you know.

WWII prison camp films seem to capture the spirit of school — the secret activities, the getting away with stuff — it all becomes hi-jinks. Helped along here by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which apart from a few lamentable comedy noises is inventive, sprightly, distinctive — it has a theme you can whistle (important for a GREAT ESCAPE knock-off) but lots of other fun elements too, plus the snare drums Darryl Zanuck would have insisted upon.

The scourge of war films — and they are a bit of a scourge, however nostalgic we might feel about some of them — all comes from WWII. If you look at First World War films, they made propaganda movies while the war was on, then largely stopped talking about it, and then when they returned to the subject it was to talk about how dreadful war was. THE BIG PARADE, WINGS, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. You could lighten the mood with a romance or a bromance, but that was mostly to contrast with how dreadful the war was. Not too many exceptions.

“You said it, miste – oh, wait”

But with WWII the propaganda continued even after the end of hostilities, as if we had to carry on convincing ourselves that it was a noble venture. Britain became hopelessly locked into war nostalgia, as did 20th Century Fox, the studio that came to embody Zanuck’s mid-life/late life crisis of masculinity writ large.

Does VRE get away with turning the war into a school romp just by slapping on a moment of tragedy? Does THE GREAT ESCAPE? My point is not that we mustn’t enjoy them, but that we should remain aware that they’re slightly poisonous.

Anyway, Sinatra is an American airman, Ryan, who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian prison camp where he’s mostly surrounded by Brits including Trevor Howard. He aquires the “Von” nickname by standing up against murdering camp commandant Adolfo Celli. But then he masterminds a daring takeover of the prison train carrying the men towards Germany, rerouting it to Switzerland. It’s faintly preposterous but done with panache.

There he is, doing his running!

Robson, a former editor, gets most of his effects by intercutting straightforward shots. The first reveal of Sinatra is beautifully staged in a Maurice Tourneur-style blocking reveal, though. The direct cutting of the nouvelle vague had found its way into LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but Robson is having none of it. I like dissolves personally but an elephantine thing like this might benefit from more nimble and surprising transitions. Robson is surprisingly flatfooted about scene endings, even when the script supplies him with zingers. He also says things like “Clue me,” which didn’t strike me as period-accurate, but I could be wrong.

The Italian war was all about male nudity: see also CATCH 22.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS stars Frankie Machine; Captain Bligh; Princess Salirah; Harry Luck; Teocrito; Willie ‘Tunnel King’; Capt. Daniel Gregg; Dr. Mabuse; Clark Gable; Bertram Garvay; Emilio Largo; Nazorine; Don Jarvis; FBI Director Denton Voyles: and King Minos.

Blind Tuesday: The butcher’s so frightening I gotta wear shades

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2022 by dcairns

Remember when I used to write about thrillers featuring blind characters on Tuesdays? But I never got around to WAIT UNTIL DARK. Maybe this time.

Well, Dario Argento has made something called DARK GLASSES or maybe, ridiculously, BLACK GLASSES (OCCHIALI NERI). It has all the bad qualities of an Argento film from any period and maybe some moments reminiscent of his good ones.

As in any Argento film, good or bad, people are stupid, and our sex worker heroine starts the film by staring into an eclipse. When she’s blinded by a brain injury incurred that night at the hands (or van) of a serial killer, we’re apt to feel she was seeing on borrowed time anyway. (I’ve belatedly realised filmmakers deliberately have their characters behave stupidly because it makes the audience feel tense. Don’t go downstairs! They’re often willing to sacrifice sympathy and credibility for this useful stupidity anxiety.)

The car crash that blinded her has also orphaned a little Chinese boy who becomes her carer, recalling the cute relationship at the heart of CAT O’ NINE TAILS (good Argento). Asia Argento plays an employee of the blind person’s mobility service, who wears a T-shirt saying she’s an instructor of the blind person’s mobility service. I think everyone in this film should wear a T-shirt saying what they are. It’s the only way the dopey cops are likely to identify the killer.

Argento seems pretty clear in interviews that he doesn’t want to repeat his glory days, and if fans can’t learn to enjoy his new tunes, that’s their hard luck. But he CONSTANTLY repeats his glory days, he just does it without the style. This one has a faux-Goblin score and some coloured lighting. And one or two inventive situations — there’s a ludicrous random water-snake attack that reminded me of INFERNO’s river-rats, and quite a promising bit where the heroine has a rifle and needs the kid to aim it. But nothing is made of this — no shot aiming along the barrel as it pans wildly to and fro, the minimum required trick. Took me ten seconds to think of it.

What sometimes happens to older directors is they increasingly reject cheap tricks, but have nothing to replace them with. In a film like this, cheap tricks are what we pay to see.

Alas! A whole lot of funding bodies threw in presumably tiny amounts of money to let Dario make another film. I would be glad for him, but he doesn’t seem to be having any fun with it.

Cuckoo Croak

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2021 by dcairns

THE CUCKOO MURDER CASE: an Ub Iwerks short starring Flip the Frog. Great spooky house atmos and I love the picture of the dopey cat on the wall. Lots of cute anthropomorphic gags. EVERYTHING is alive here: the murder victim is the cuckoo from a cuckoo clock, who gets perforated by a gunshot. The entry and exit wounds are circular holes running right through the bird, making him seem wooden, which he is. But still alive, and then dead.

He has a washing line and a plant pot on the side of his clock.

The clock has a literal face which reacts to events. The hands prod the cuckoo to make him perform (before he’s shot) and then call the cops using a phone which is also alive and sentient.

The clock “dials” 2479 by peeling the numbers off his face and dropping them into the receiver. I wonder when the emergency number in the US changed to 911? 2479 is a terrible choice.

Interestingly, the clock can’t speak, but makes various clock noises while moving his lips.

Flip is another vaguely minstrel-like character with black head and white mouth area — but these features, common to Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Rabbit, Bimbo the Dog, are arguably just a way to make a figure read well in simple b&w drawn form. Only Bosko was openly intended as a racial caricature.

Flip is a detective in this one. His cop car lives in a kennel and its bark is a car horn honk. It’s not exactly logical, but once it’s established, Iwerks can carry on just as if it were. When he stretches the car/dog’s tongue out and twists it, using it as a crank to start the motor, that’s kind of strange. But we are riffing on connections between canine and auto anatomy, so it holds up, just about. Though I don’t think it’s an accepted way of starting your dog.

By some similar reasoning, the squad car’s siren is a cat, activated by turning its tail like a handle to make it caterwaul. When the car passes through a puddle, the cat becomes clogged, so the tail now becomes a pump which can blast the water out of its mouth. It would be handy if we could do that to Momo when he wants to throw up, so we could make it happen in the right place. He always goes looking for the most expensive and soilable item in the floordrobe to spill his catguts into.

Iwerks is having so much fun with the notion of characters motoring through a storm that he pretty much forgets about his plot. The journey is a good place for repeating action on loops, a favourite technique of the 30s (see also Fleischer toons) because it allows for recycling of cels. Plus a lot of the comedy comes from creating a musical tempo, plus you can build laughter by doing the same gag a few times. If it’s funny once, maybe it’ll be funny again.

When the rain gets too heavy, Flip detaches the mouse figurine hood ornament, which didn’t exist in any previous shot, and attaches it to his windscreen. Since the mouse is an actual live mouse, it now works as a windshield wiper. Actually, I’m kind of embarrassed about the amount of work the word “since” is doing in that sentence. In an Iwerks cartoon, there isn’t really any since.

Even the house is alive, flashing its windows at Flip like the Palmer house at the end of Twin Peaks season 3. The illuminated eyes and mouth scare Flip away — the hero’s quest refused — but the wind keeps blowing him back.

Like Gary Oldman’s shadow in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, or Peter Pan’s, Flip’s shadow starts getting ahead of him — and there’s that dopey cat again. Or maybe an ancestor of the previous dopey cat. When the cuckoo clock’s pendulum strikes him (why? the clock invited him here) like the hazardous wall clock in Chaplin’s ONE A.M., Flip trashes a suit of armour in retaliation and reveals a third, identical portrait. This is like Corman’s HOUSE OF USHER.

Not unlike other spooky house thrillers of the time, e.g. Benjamin Christensen’s amazing, hallucinatory SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, the exploration of the haunted house is just one damn thing after another: rather than building up a coherent mystery with puzzles to solve, suspects advancing and retreating, it’s just a whole morass of crazy occurrences. In the BC film — and in Gance’s amazing AU SECOURS! with Max Linder, and probably in Benjamin Christensen’s other spooky house films, now lost save for their Vitaphone soundtracks — we just accumulate madness until a single global explanation accounts for all of it in one swell foop.

The title suggests the Philo Vance films William Powell was doing at the time, but the sensation-film angle is much closer to Leni-Christensen.

With the eerie hooded figure, seen from behind, this may have been inspired by another of those old shockers, Roy Del Ruth’s THE TERROR, now missing presumed lost. In which case, this is the closest thing to seeing it, apart from the few stills in circulation and the contemporary reviews, which suggest it was really something.

Even by cartoon standards, the ending of this one is unsatisfactory. But interesting. Flip flees the hooded killer, who is apparently Death Himself — shades of Argento’s INFERNO — running down a corridor with the camera rushing after him, and dives into a dark void — and that’s it. As if we ran out of background and foreground at the same time.