Thursday, December 28, 2023

Warning Shot (1966)

Warning Shot is an all but forgotten 1966 crime thriller that really does not deserve to be forgotten. It’s not a masterpiece, it wasn’t ground-breaking, but it’s a well-crafted movie with the feel of a good B-movie. Although it’s a stretch (and quite a big stretch) I guess you could just about get away with seeing this movie as having a very slight hint of film noir. Very slight.

David Janssen (a huge star at the time thanks to The Fugitive) headlines and the supporting cast is extraordinary - Stefanie Powers, Ed Begley, Joan Collins, Keenan Wynn, George Sanders, Lillian Gish, Eleanor Parker, Carroll O’Connor, Walter Pidgeon.

The basic setup is hardly dazzlingly original. Janssen is Detective Sergeant Tom Valens. He’s staking out an apartment building (trying to catch a psycho killer) on a very foggy night. A guy leaves the apartment house. He’s acting furtively and when he sees Valens he runs, Valens gives chase, the guy draws a gun and Valens shoots him dead. It would be an open-and-shut case of a cop shooting in self-defence except for one thing. The guy’s gun cannot be found, leading to the suspicion that there was no gun. Now Tom Valens is facing a manslaughter charge.

What makes things really sticky for Valens is that the guy he shot turns out to have been not just a doctor, but a doctor with a reputation for being just about a living saint. The public and the press are baying for Valens’ blood. The icing on the cake is that the D.A. has a personal dislike for Tom Valens.

As invariably happens in such stories Valens decides that the only way to save his career is to find out what really happened that night. He’s on suspension but he’s going to investigate the case anyway.

He has a suspicion that maybe the doctor wasn’t such a saint after all. He comes up with a couple of theories that might explain the doctor’s suspicious behaviour (the most obvious being that he was visiting his mistress).

These theories don’t quite pan out but Valens has to keep digging.

So in its essentials it’s a routine story. That doesn’t matter. What matters is not the originality of a story but how well it is told, and in this case it’s told pretty well.

Tom Valens makes a good hero. He’s sympathetic without being too sympathetic, he’s smart but not too smart, he’s a good cop but not a perfect one. He makes mistakes. He follows the wrong leads. But he keeps trying. Janssen was good at playing imperfect heroes and he does a fine job.

He makes mistakes in his personal life as well. His divorce from his wife Joanie (Joan Collins) is about to become final. Joanie is still willing to try to save the marriage. She’s a nice lady. She loves him. He’d be a fool to push her away. But he does.

Those extraordinary supporting players mostly get limited screen time but Lillian Gish and Eleanor Parker make the most of their opportunities. Joan Collins is good and looks stunning.

The plot setup is standard but there are some nice twists.

The most significant thing about this movie is the timing. It came out in 1966. A year later Bonnie and Clyde was released. The tone and the style of crime movies changed dramatically overnight. The tone and style of movies in general changed at that time. 1967 was a pivotal year. As far as crime movies are concerned 1967 also saw the release of Point Blank but it was Bonnie and Clyde that had the biggest impact. Almost overnight movies like Warning Shot seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. And were quickly forgotten.

Seeing it now it’s Warning Shot’s old-fashioned vibe that gives it its appeal. It’s like a classic 1950s crime B-movie.

Another movie that suffered the same fate as Warning Shot and was also unfairly forgotten is The Money Trap from 1965 which is an actual classic film noir, not a neo-noir.

Warning Shot is extremely well-crafted (and superbly shot with some great atmosphere)

in the classical Hollywood style and that classical style has a lot to be said for it. I personally prefer it to the new style that emerged post-1967. This is a thoroughly entertaining movie and it’s highly recommended.

The Kino Lorber release offers a very good transfer and there’s an audio commentary.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Spider and the Fly (1949)

The Spider and the Fly is a 1949 British crime thriller directed by Robert Hamer.

The setting is France in 1913, the last days of La Belle Epoque. Fernand Maubert (Eric Portman) is a senior police detective and he’s a man wth an obsession. That obsession is Philippe de Ledocq (Guy Rolfe), a brilliant criminal. Maubert is convinced that Philippe has been behind a series of daring robberies but somehow Philippe always has an unbreakable alibi.

After a recent bank robbery Maubert did manage to detain Philippe’s accomplice, the very pretty Madeleine Saincaize (Nadia Gray). Madeleine is Philippe’s mistress. Maubert had no real evidence against her. He had hoped that she might betray Philippe but Madeleine is hopelessly in love with the master criminal.

Maubert and Philippe are on quite friendly terms. In fact the two men like each other. Maubert disapproves of criminals and is therefore determined to convict Philippe but mostly what annoys Maubert is that Philippe was born into privilege and power. Maubert cannot understand why such a man would betray his family and his upbringing and turn to crime.

Philippe likes and admires Maubert as a man but he strongly disapproves of policemen.

The first two-thirds of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game between Maubert and Philippe. Philippe is clever but Maubert is dogged.

Madeleine provides a complication. She has been Philippe’s mistress but Maubert is falling for her. Maubert is also hoping to use her in order to trap Philippe, so Maubert’s motivations are rather murky.

Then the movie switches gears and becomes a slightly different (and in my opinion less satisfactory) kind of movie but I can’t say any more without revealing spoilers.

We’re presumably expected to see Maubert as a noble dedicated policeman and that’s certainly how he sees himself. I’m afraid that to me he came across as smug and self-righteous, and not at all honourable. Maybe I’m just not so tolerant of policemen using lies and emotional manipulation to achieve their ends.

Eric Portman’s performance is solid enough but he was unable to persuade me to feel any sympathy at all for his character.

Guy Rolfe is much much better as Philippe - charming and not particularly trustworthy, a likeable rogue. Rolfe is able to make a somewhat over-the-top character fairly believable.

Nadia Gray is fine although in some respects Robert Westerby’s script did her no favours.

George Cole as a detective makes a reasonably effective sidekick to Maubert.

The surprise ending really does come as a surprise but I felt that it came out of left field and was contrived and unconvincing. It required the characters to behave in ways that seemed to me to be inconsistent with what we had earlier learnt about their personalities. But perhaps it’s an ending that would appealed to audiences in 1949. There’s also an epilogue which I detested but I imagine audiences in 1949 would have lapped it up.

Robert Hamer as director does a perfectly competent job with a couple of effective suspense scenes.

The movie was of course shot in black-and-white.

The Spider and the Fly is enjoyable enough and it’s worth a look.

This movie is a bit hard to find but there is an Italian DVD which offers the original English soundtrack as an option and the transfer is satisfactory if less than pristine.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Doll (Die Puppe, 1919)

The Doll (Die Puppe) is a 1919 German silent fantasy/comedy directed and co-written by Ernst Lubitsch.

It was based on a story by the early 19th century German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. If you haven’t read any of Hoffmann’s stories do so immediately. They’re a combination of Romantic, gothic, fantasy and weird elements and they’re exhilarating.

This is a kind of fairy tale and everything is made to look as artificial as possible - it’s like a children’s story book come to life, although it’s not really a story for children!

The Baron von Chauterelle does not want his distinguished family line to die out. His heir is his nephew Lancelot. He has decided that Lancelot must marry immediately. All the marriageable young maidens from the nearby village, forty of them in all, are instructed to present themselves at the baron’s castle so that Lancelot can pick his bride. The maidens are all desperately anxious to be chosen - marriage to Lancelot will mean wealth and a title.

There is one problem. Lancelot is terrified of women. He flees, with the maidens in hot pursuit. He takes refuge at an abbey. The monks make a big show of their poverty although in fact they live in luxury and dine in magnificent style.

The Baron von Chauterelle is devastated at the disappearance of his nephew. He makes a public offer - he will give Lancelot an immense sum of money if he marries.

The wily abbot comes up with a clever scheme. The famous dollmaker Hilarius makes lifelike life-size female dolls. The dolls are advertised as being suitable for bachelors and widowers. The dolls are operated by clockwork and can perform all kinds of lifelike action such as dancing.

Now another problem arises. Lancelot thinks these dolls are a bit too lascivious. He thinks their dancing is positively indecent. There is a solution at hand. Hilarius has just completed a new doll, made in the image of his daughter Ossi (played by Ossi Oswalda). He assures Lancelot that this doll is of good character.

Fate steps in when Hilarius’s fifteen-year-old apprentice accidentally breaks the new doll. To save the apprentice from punishment Ossi will pretend to be the doll, until the apprentice can repair the actual doll. Ossi, pretending to be the doll, is shown to Lancelot. Lancelot is so delighted that he not only immediately buys her, he decides to take her with him on the spot. He sets off for his uncle’s castle, in a carriage drawn by two horses that are clearly men in horse costumes, which adds further to the fairy tale feel.

So we have an actress named Ossi playing the part of a girl named Ossi who is masquerading as a doll which is masquerading as a real girl. That’s the sort of movie this is - everything is multiple layers of artificiality and the artificiality is all clearly on view.

Much amusement ensues for the viewer as Ossi keeps reverting to her real self when Lancelot isn’t looking and then reverts to her masquerade as a doll when he is looking.

Much of that amusement is somewhat risqué. At times very risqué. And of course interesting things are going to happen on Lancelot’s wedding night, given that he thinks that his bride is simply a mechanical doll.

Parts of the sets are simply painted backdrops. When the sun rises it’s a cartoon sun with a smiley face. Some of the humour is broad and some is sharp and witty. Grasping monks and greedy relatives (waiting for the old baron to die) come in for some rough treatment.

The apprentice is a hoot. It’s like he’s fifteen going on thirty-five, and a cynical world-weary thirty-five. The characters are not the least bit realistic and yet weirdly we believe in them. Lancelot could have come across as a fool and a milksop but somehow he manages to engage our sympathies. Ossi Oswalda gives a bravura comic performance.

This movie is a mix of cleverness and good-natured fun. It’s bizarre, but in a good way. Unlike most fairy tale moves it does not make a single concession to realism at any point. It revels in its artificiality.

I can’t think of any other movie that pushes deliberate artificiality as far as this but it works. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Gidget (1959)

Gidget, released in 1959, was the first surfer girl movie and was so successful that it spawned several sequels and a TV series. It paved the way for the beach party movies of the early 60s and it established the existence of a major market for lighthearted teen romance comedies. It launched Sandra Dee’s career. It’s a fun movie and it was interesting in other ways as well, which we’ll get to later.

Francine (Sandra Dee) is a 16-year-old girl about to spend the summer soaking up the sun on the beach. Her friends have other things in mind apart from sun worship. As far as they’re concerned they’re on a hunt for men and they intend to bag a few trophies.

Francine is bitten by the surfing bug. She sees the guys having so much fun and she wants to join. Surprisingly the surfer guys who hang around with Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) are not overly hostile. They agree to teach her to surf. Because she’s a girl and she’s very petite they christen her Gidget (short for girl midget). The fact that Gidget is as cute as a button may have something to do with the fondness the guys feel for her but they’re rather protective of her as well.

Most of the guys just spend the summer surfing but Kahuna is a full-time surfer bum. Moondoggie (James Darren) wants to be a surfer bum as well. Kahuna might be perpetually broke but he’s free. This movie marks a very early appearance of the drop-out in Hollywood movies.

Gidget falls for Moondoggie. He’s not very interested.

Gidget of course has a plan to land her man. Naturally everything goes wrong. Gidget finds herself in a very awkward situation.

There’s plenty of amusement to be had here. There’s some very obvious rear projection which adds to the charm of the movie.

Hollywood teen movies are often mocked for featuring teenagers played by actors who were pushing 30. For Gidget Columbia decided on a radical approach. If they were making a movie about a 16-year-old girl why not get an actress who could do it convincingly? Why not cast an actual 16-year-old girl? Which is what they did. And it works. As a bonus Sandra Dee turned out to be a talented comic actress with immense amounts of charm.

Gidget was made at an incredibly interesting time in Hollywood history, the period around 1958 to1962. The Production code was staring to crumble and Hollywood was tentatively exploring the idea of making movies that dealt with sex in an open and grown-up way. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Butterfield 8 and The World of Suzie Wong all came out during this brief period. There are very slight hints of this in Gidget. There is at least an acknowledgement of the sexual nature of the interest that Gidget’s female friends have in boys.

Of course there’s also a message that girls are allowed to have sexual feelings as long as they don’t do anything abut it. The Sexual Revolution was on the way but it wasn’t there yet.

There’s also a message about growing up. Growing up means giving up your dreams and giving up silly ideas about freedom. Who needs those things? I’m afraid that the happy ending to this movie left me incredibly depressed.

The acting is pretty good. Cliff Robertson is fun as Kahuna, a man who isn’t as sure of himself as he thought he was. There are early appearances by people who would go on to achieve at least a measure of stardom. There’s Doug McClure, Yvonne Craig and Tom Laughlin. And of course James Darren who later starred in one of my favourite 60s TV series, The Time Tunnel. In Gidget he even sings. He makes a fine leading man for Sandra Dee.

The movie’s biggest strength is Sandra Dee. She’s delightful and she’s very funny. It’s a great pity that this was to be her only appearance as Gidget. She has great chemistry wth James Darren.

Apart from my reservations about the ending Gidget is lightweight amusing romantic fun. Sandra Dee’s performance is enough to warrant a highly recommended rating.

Via Vision in Australia have released the three Gidget movies plus the 1972 TV-movie Gidget Gets Married in both DVD and Blu-Ray boxed sets (both very reasonably priced). Gidget gets an excellent anamorphic transfer, with no extras.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Sumurun (1920)

Sumurun is an early (1920) Ernst Lubitsch film. He was the director and co-writer. It’s included in Eureka’s Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set.

These very early Lubitsch movies will surprise people who only know his later Hollywood work. Lubitsch’s early interest was very much in fantasy. Some of the movies in this boxed set are quite bizarre, with an exaggeratedly artificial storybook style. Sumurun is a slightly more conventional Arabian Nights-style fantasy/adventure/romance.

It was based on a six-act pantomime by Friedrich Freksa.

Sumurun (Jenny Hasselqvist) is the favourite of the old sheikh’s harem women but she’s fallen in love with a handsome merchant. The shiekh is very cross with her. He’s even considering separating her head from her shoulders.

Meanwhile a group of minstrels is on its way to the city. The troupe includes a dancer named Yannaia (Pola Negri). They encounter a famous slave trader who thinks that the spirited girl dancer would make a fine addition to the sheikh’s harem.

On arrival in the city Yannaia attracts the attention of the sheikh’s vain but good-natured son.

Lots of plot complications and romantic intrigues ensue. It’s difficult to keep up with the number of romantic triangles that intersect with each other. Romantic and sexual triangles - sex is a major driving force in this movie.

The leader of the minstrel troupe is a hunchback who nourishes an unrequited love for Yannaia. The hunchback is played by Lubitsch himself.

There are all sorts of ruses used to gain entry to the harem. The slave trader wants to sell Yannaia to the sheikh and she’s maybe not entirely averse to the idea of being a harem girl (they do live lives of fabulous luxury) although she’d prefer to share the bed of the sheikh’s son rather than that of the old sheikh.

The movie takes its title from Sumurun but Sumurun as a character is rather overshadowed by Yannaia, and although Jenny Hasselqvist is very good she’s certainly overshadowed by Pola Negri’s bravura performance. But then almost any actress would have found herself overshadowed by Pola Negri. She’s in fine sexy form here and she’s playing the seductress with every man in sight.

Paul Wegener is suitably cruel and forbidding as the old sheikh.

The tone is all over the place. At times this is tragedy, at other times cheerful bedroom farce. The tragic tone is not quite what you expect from Lubitsch, and then suddenly the movie switches to broad comedy.

This movie is perhaps less experimental than other films in this set such as The Doll and The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze). It takes place in what is obviously a totally imaginary fairy tale world but it doesn’t draw attention to its own artificiality to the same extent. Lubitsch was playing around with different approaches from one film to another, looking for just the right approach for his purposes.

It looks great. The spectacular sets are very Arabian Nights in influence but they lack the engagingly bizarre fascination of the sets in other early Lubitsch movies. It’s all done on the grand scale and looks like a great deal of money was spent on it. On the whole it was money well spent.

doesn’t quite come off. The tonal shifts are too extreme and too sudden. But these early Lubitsch films are undeniably fascinating. He was prepared to try anything. And he tried some things that very very few directors since have dared to try. That’s enough reason for me to give Sumurun a highly recommended rating.

Eureka’s DVD transfer is tinted and this is a movie that absolutely has to be seen in a tinted print. The tinting in silent movies takes a bit of getting used to. It was a unique aesthetic of its own, totally different from either colour or black-and-white cinematography. I believe there’s now a Blu-Ray version of this set.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Innocents With Dirty Hands (1975)

Innocents With Dirty Hands (Les innocents aux mains sales) is a 1975 Claude Chabrol thriller.

The setup is so conventional and chichéd that we never seriously doubt that this is deliberate and that Chabrol has some surprises up his sleeve.

Julie (Romy Schneider) is married to Louis Wormser (Rod Steiger). He’s much older than her, he’s a self-pitying drunk and he can’t perform in the bedroom any more. Julie meets Jeff Marlo (Paolo Giusti), a handsome young aspiring writer. Julie reveals her unhappiness and sexual frustration to Jeff. Jeff takes immediate steps to solve her sexual frustration problems. Julie tells Jeff how very unhappy she is. She has to remain married to Louis because he’s rich but she’s very tired of him. If only some solution could be found to her problems.

You know where this is leading, and indeed pretty soon Julie and Jeff are planning a little accident for Louis. It’s basically The Postman Always Rings Twice but set among the decadent bourgeoisie. And of course the basic story has been done countless other times.

The night set for Louis’ accident arrives. They have decided that it would be wise for Jeff to slip over the border to Italy for a few days.

The police think they have a pretty good murder case. There are however some odd gaps in the police case, and the viewer will certainly notice these odd gaps. Certain things are assumed to have happened, but there’s no real proof. We start to suspect that there’s quite a lot that we don’t know.

Julie also starts to realise that there were some very important things that she didn’t know. And still doesn’t know.

The big plot twist at the midway point isn’t going to surprise anybody and I don’t think it was intended to. It’s the only possible explanation for certain events. I don’t think Chabrol was overly interested in the plot twists anyway. He was more interested in the psychological consequences of the plot twists. It’s the emotional twists that matter, not the narrative twists.

And Chabrol is much more interested in what happens after that major plot twist - it’s the actions that the characters take in response to the revelation that makes the movie start to become much more engrossing.

There’s a certain detachment to this movie. Chabrol isn’t trying to present us with a hero or a heroine with whom we’re going to empathise. He views their actions dispassionately. Audience members will have to decide if the actions of the characters are justified, and whether justice ever gets done. The police and the examining magistrate and Julie’s lawyer aren’t really sure either how justice would best be served and the law doesn’t care much either way.

Julie’s lawyer doesn’t think it makes much difference if she’s telling the truth or not. She’s beautiful so she’ll be believed anyway. And truth is whatever people happen to believe.

Romy Schneider is perhaps the movie’s biggest asset. She gives a complex performance. Julie is a woman whose motivations tend to shift, depending on her emotions and her sexual desires.

Rod Steiger is less hammy than usual.

Sex is pretty important in this movie. Not just sex as sex, but sex as it affects the mind and the heart as well as the body. The two main characters struggle to deal with sexual desires with which they’re not always comfortable. Love and sex make us do things we don’t want to do.

This isn’t an action-packed thrill-a-minute kind of thriller. It’s much more cerebral. What keeps us interested is that we never know for sure what the two central characters will do next, probably because they also don’t know what they’re going to do next.

If this is the kind of thriller you enjoy then you’ll be happy with this psychological study of love, hate, sex, murder, revenge, forgiveness and jealousy. Innocents With Dirty Hands turns out to be not at all the movie that it initially promised to be. It turns out to be a lot more interesting and it’s recommended.

The old Pathfinder Pictures DVD (from 2003) is letterboxed. The transfer is not dazzling but it’s acceptable and if you want to see this movie then it seems to be the only English-friendly option.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Wildcat (1921)

The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) is a 1921 Ernst Lubitsch silent comedy/romance. If you only know Lubitsch from his later Hollywood movies his early German movies will totally blow your mind. This is wild crazy stuff.

Lieutenant Alexis is an officer stationed in a large town located somewhere in a typical early Lubitsch fairy tale world. The lieutenant has been causing some disciplinary problems so as punishment he’s been sent to a remote fortress commanded by a crazy general with the most impressive moustache in movie history. It was considered necessary to remove Lieutenant Alexis from the temptations of town life.

This is devastating news for the female population of the town. When he departs hundreds and hundreds of women turn out to bid him farewell. They all have good reason to have fond remembrances of Lieutenant Alexis. Dozens of children turn out to bid farewell to him as well, waving as they say goodbye to Daddy. We now have some idea why all those women have such fond memories of Lieutenant Alexis. They are expressing their gratitude for the many services the lieutenant has performed for them. Services that he has performed cheerfully and with a great deal of diligence. He has clearly gone above and beyond the call of duty.

On his arrival at the remote fortress Lieutenant Alexis makes a favourable impression on the commanding general, who decides that the lieutenant would be a suitable husband for his daughter. The daughter is pleasant enough but Alexis is not keen on marriage.

The fortress is being menaced by a band of cut-throats and robbers. During his journey Lieutenant Alexis has already made the acquaintance of the daughter of the chief of the bandits. The young lady in question is Rischka (Pola Negri). She’s the wildcat referred to in the film’s title and wildcat is an apt description.

Rischka is wild but she is a woman and she is immediately rather smitten by the dashing woman-chasing lieutenant. She feels that he is the man she has been waiting for.

So in addition to several hundred women back in the town Lieutenant Alexis now has two women who have set their sights on him. He seems to be not unaware of Rischka’s wild charms.

Of course there is the question of whether any man can tame this female wildcat, but there’s another question. Can any woman tame the skirt-chasing lieutenant, and turn him into a one-woman man?

It’s all played for fun and there’s very much a farcical quality to the movie. It’s most definitely played for laughs. The humour is occasionally a little risqué, there are moments that approach slapstick and it’s always absurd and outrageous.

There’s a tendency to focus too much on Expressionism when discussing German movies of the silent era. The fact is that there was an extraordinary amount of visual inventiveness in these German movies and Expressionism in the strict sense was just one facet of this. Lubitsch’s early movies cannot be described as Expressionist, but there’s the same disdain for realism and the same amazing soaring feats of visual imagination.

Early Lubitsch (in movies such as The Doll as well as this one) have an uncompromising non-realist feel. They take part in a world that resembles a fairy tale world but it goes beyond this. Lubitsch’s early films are like storybooks with moving pictures and the artificiality is emphasised at every opportunity. There’s also the feel of having actually entered the artificial world of a storybook.

The sets are stunning, witty and exaggerated to an extreme degree. They look fabulous. The costumes are outrageous.

The performances are deliberately in a kind of pantomime style. These are not supposed to be real people. They’re storybook characters.

To describe Pola Negri’s performance as lively and energetic just doesn’t do her justice. She’s like a firecracker. She’s a delight.

Paul Heidemann is terrific as the vain womanising Lieutenant Alexis. He manages to make the lieutenant a loveable rogue.

Lubitsch really goes overboard with the masking of frames. Every frame seems to be a different shape. It adds to the playfulness.

There’s a battle scene between the soldiers and the robbers but of course no-one gets hurt. The worst that anyone is likely to suffer in this combat is being hit by a snowball.

This is a lighthearted candy-flavoured concoction which could easily have ended up being too sweet or too silly but its sheer exuberance carries it through.

The Eureka DVD provides a pretty decent transfer. This movie is part of their Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set (there’s now a Blu-Ray version as well). Most of the movies in this set are tinted but this one isn’t. English translations are provided for the intertitles.

These movies from so early in Lubitsch’s career have a totally unique feel. There have been plenty of fairy tale movies but none done with the same visual extravagance and style. The Wildcat is wild and crazy and very romantic. It’s a reminder of just how much visual style and flamboyance and imagination movies lost with the advent of sound. The Wildcat is highly recommended.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Medea (1969)

To describe Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) as an adaptation of the 5th century BC play of Euripides would be a bit misleading. Pasolini uses the play as a jumping-off point. Pasolini was making a movie and movies being a visual medium he eliminated most of the dialogue, choosing to tell the story visually.

It’s the story of Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts) and Medea. Jason’s kingdom was stolen from him. To retrieve his kingdom he has to bring back the Golden Fleece. It doesn’t enable him to regain his kingdom but he does acquire a wife, a princess (and sorceress) of Colchis named Medea.

The ambitious Jason heads for Corinth and his ambitions are about to be realised. He is to marry a second time, to the daughter of the king of Corinth. A very advantageous match from Jason’s point of view. At which point Medea takes her revenge.

This is not a story of a woman scorned. There is much more going on here.

Jason was raised by a centaur who told him that there is nothing natural in nature. This is the key to understanding the society from which both Jason and Medea come, and Pasolini spends much of the early part of the movie world-building, immersing us in an extraordinarily alien world. This is a world in which everything is understood in terms of myth and ritual and magic. There is not even the slightest hint of rationality in this world. In this world reason explains nothing; myth and ritual and magic explain everything.

If we do not understand just how alien this society is we cannot understand Medea’s later actions and we might make the mistake of regarding her as a madwoman. She is not mad. She simply views the whole of life in terms of her own culture and religion, and from her point of view her actions are not merely justified but necessary.

Medea has certainly suffered a grievous insult in being discarded in favour of a much younger woman but it is a double betrayal. By taking her to Corinth Jason tempted Medea to abandon her culture and religion and her thoroughly pre-modern pre-civilised view of the world.

There is an interesting scene that takes place shortly after Jason’s theft of the Golden Fleece. Jason’s sailors make camp for the night. Medea is terrified, horrified and bewildered when they fail to perform the necessary rituals (or what she considers to be the necessary rituals).

It’s possible that Pasolini is trying to make a point about the alienating nature of civilisation and the way it strips life of its magic and its meaning. Not every viewer is necessarily going to be in sympathy with this. It doesn’t really matter whether you agree with such a view or not. What matters is that there is a very real and profound clash of cultures and beliefs and that Medea certainly feels alienated from the more modern more civilised cultures and beliefs of Corinth. The movie still works whether you agree with the message or not.

Pasolini’s own views on culture, politics, religion and cinema seem to have been constantly changing and also seem to have been contradictory and confused. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw in a film-maker. He can use the opportunity to work though his ideas.

Maria Callas was the world’s most famous soprano at the time but she had the reputation of being an opera singer who didn’t just sing her parts but acted them powerfully as well. She was an inspired choice to play Medea. No-one else in the movie can act at all, but that works in a way. This is not a realist movie. Pasolini’s cinematic roots may have been in realism but Medea makes no concessions to realism. The stiff artificial performances of the other cast members enhance the film’s artificiality, and also serve to focus our attention on Callas.

This is not a stagey film but that artificiality is constantly emphasised. Jason was raised by a centaur. The centaur does not look the slightest bit convincing. He looks like a stage centaur. In fact he probably looks the way a centaur would have looked in a fifth century BC theatrical performance.

The location shooting (in Turkey, Syria and Italy) is stunning. Pasolini uses locations and architecture to emphasise his points. In Colchis we do not see a single straight line. Every building, every habitations, looks like it grew out of the soil. In Corinth everything is ordered. Nothing looks organic. Everything is constructed according to perfect classical proportions.

Medea is a movie you’re either going to love or hate. It depends on whether you’re able to immerse yourself fully in its world. If you are able to do that then the film is a strange magic experience. I enjoyed it a great deal. Your mileage might well vary.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad, released in 1924, is the greatest of the 1920s Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers. It’s one of the greatest swashbuckling adventure movies of all time, and in my opinion it’s the greatest Hollywood movie of the silent era. Fairbanks considered it to be his best movie, and he was right.

It was not the huge box-office bonanza that had been hoped for. It’s an ambitious demanding movie and audiences looking for pure escapist entertainment found it a little bewildering. It has long provoked conflicting critical assessments, but then great works of art tend to do that.

There have been many movies since that have been inspired by the Arabian Nights but none have surpassed the Fairbanks film.

By 1924, in the wake of box office blockbusters such as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922) Fairbanks was a huge star. He had a great deal of creative control. He conceived, produced and wrote his 1920s swashbucklers and had major input into every aspect of these films. For The Thief of Bagdad he was also lucky to have very talented collaborators. Raoul Walsh directed and William Cameron Menzies was the art director. But there is no question that this is Fairbanks’ movie. The idea was his and the movie is his vision. He supervised every aspect of the production. Fairbanks was very much an auteur, possibly the outstanding example of a producer-star as auteur.

Fairbanks plays a thief in Bagdad. The Caliph’s daughter is to be married but her husband has not yet been chosen. Three of the greatest princes in the known world have arrived as suitors. They are not merely keen to marry a beautiful princess. Marriage to the princess will make the successful suitor master of Bagdad one day. One of the suitors, the Prince of the Mongols, intends to take Bagdad by force if his suit is unsuccessful.

The princess is superstitious and believes that the man who first touches the rose-tree beneath her window is the man she should marry, and she knows that her father will accept her choice of husband.

The thief sees an opportunity to enrich himself. He steals expensive clothing and presents himself as a fourth suitor, the prince of an entirely mythical land. Of course when he meets the princess he genuinely falls in love with her. And of course his imposture is revealed and he is whipped for his presumption.

A holy man tells him that he must earn the right to the princess’s hand by undergoing a series of quests. If he succeeds then he will surely be enable to marry the princess.

The princess, in order to buy herself time (she dislikes the other three suitors intensely) proposes a quest for the suitors as well. She says she will marry the man who bings her the most fabulously valuable gift. The suitors set out to find suitable gifts which naturally must have magical properties.

The princess has a spy in her midst, a treacherous slave-girl (played by Anna May Wong) who serves the Prince of the Mongols.

It’s a fine story but it’s the way Fairbanks unfolds the story which is entrancing.

In 1924 techniques for moving the camera did not yet exist. F.W. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund are usually given the credit for inventing these techniques in Germany at around this time although the truth is slightly more complicated. In the case of The Thief of Bagdad it doesn’t matter. There are many ways of bringing a sense of movement and dynamism into shots without moving the camera and both Fairbanks and Walsh were keenly aware of the importance of avoiding a static feel. With a star like Fairbanks that was easy. The man was a human dynamo who never stopped moving. If he did stop moving he had the ability to make you think he was about to burst into action again any second.

All the cast members are constantly in movement. Also utilised is the very effective technique of having things happening simultaneously in different parts of the frame. The editing is also lively and very modern. While Walsh must be given some credit it is clear that his job as director was simply to help Fairbanks realise his vision.

One of the most impressive things about this movie is the extraordinary sense of scale that it achieves. You know the sets cannot possibly be that big and yet you find yourself believing that you’re seeing enormous palaces and vast caverns. And in fact the sets really were enormous - the biggest ever built in Hollywood. The movie is extraordinarily successful in achieving a genuine sense of a fantastic world of unreality, a world in which you believe even while acknowledging its unreality. This really is the Arabian Nights brought to life.

The look of the film was heavily influenced by Léon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev’s ballets, especially Scheherazade.

When watching movies from this period you have to remind yourself just how new was the technology of motion pictures. Motion pictures were being made in the late 1890s but in 1924 the feature film as we know it was only a decade old. Taking this into account the special effects in The Thief of Bagdad work pretty well. How well the special effects work is unimportant. It is the beauty and grandeur of the images and the soaring imagination required to create those images that is breathtaking.

It’s interesting to compare this movie to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), made in Germany the same year. Fairbanks had been impressed by Lang’s films, especially Destiny. Fairbanks set out to surpass the German masters, and to a certain extent he succeeded.

Fairbanks brings power and manic energy to the rôle of the thief but also extraordinary grace. He is like an athlete and a dancer rolled into one. Julanne Johnston is both sweet and clever as the Princess. Most reviewers focus quite a bit on Anna May Wong but while she’s fine she has no more than a minor supporting rôle.

The Eureka Masters of Cinema release includes the movie on both Blu-Ray and DVD, with various extras. The transfer is excellent and most importantly it preserves the tinting. Tinting was an important technique is silent film and Fairbanks used it to perfection.

Fairbanks was one of the grand masters of cinema. The Thief of Bagdad is very highly recommended indeed.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

The Bob Rafelson-directed 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of several screen adaptations of James M. Cain’s famous novel. There are those who think Luchino Visconti’s 1943 version, Ossessione, is the best. It’s certainly very very good. The most famous is the 1946 MGM version with Lana Turner and John Garfield, which was severely constrained by the Production Code and is a bit too clean and glossy to capture the essential James M. Cain spirit.

This movie can be considered a neo-noir but it needs to be pointed out that Cain’s greatest novels, this one and Double Indemnity, don’t strictly follow noir conventions. We don’t have a reasonably OK but slightly morally compromised protagonist led astray by a femme fatale. Both stories include a femme fatale (and Phyllis Dietrichson and Cora Papadakis are memorable femmes fatales) but in both cases Cain offers us two people, a man and a woman, who are both equally morally corrupt and rotten. They lead each other even further along the path of corruption but the moral corruption and rottenness are there from the beginning.

The 1981 version offered an opportunity to create the authentic James M,. Cain atmosphere of desperation, lust, greed, sleaze, sweatiness and general scuzziness. For the most part it succeeds in doing that. It certainly had the right leads in Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Jack Nicholson was born to play this role.

The decision was made to give the movie a 1930s setting. This was the correct decision. The novel was written in 1934 and it’s very much a Depression-Era story that would have seemed out of place in the 80s.

One potential problem was the the combination of a period setting and colour cinematography would result in a movie that was much too pretty. For the first half of the movie the subdued earthtone-based colour palette helps to avert that danger and it looks every bit as seedy as it should look.

Frank Chambers (Nicholson) is a drifter and small-time con artist. If he can con his way into a free meal he thinks he’s a winner. When he arrives at Nick Papadakis’s isolated roadside diner and gas station he manages to do just that. Instead of getting mad Nick offers him a job as a mechanic. Frank doesn’t want the job, until he spots Nick’s wife Cora (Jessica Lange).

Pretty soon Frank and Cora are having dirty rough sex on the kitchen table. Frank was the instigator but Cora gets into the spirit of the thing pretty quickly. You couldn’t call it love-making. It’s more like animalistic mating.

Frank and Cora develop quite a sexual obsession. Frank is a loser and a sleazebag and there’s an edge of violence and cruelty to him. This turns Cora on a lot. Cora isn’t glamorous but she has an earthy animal sexuality and she’s a bit of a tramp. This turns Frank on a lot.

Eventually the idea was going to occur to them that if Nick wasn’t around they’d be able to have rough dirty sex on the kitchen table whenever they felt like it. You know where this is going to lead.

We get to the dramatic climax of the movie, which is fine and quite clever. But then it just keeps going. And going on and on and on, with totally irrelevant subplots being thrown in as the movie self-destructs.

The first half of this movie is superb. This is James M. Cain in all his seedy squalid glory brought to the screen. The second half seems like a totally different movie, or possibly bits and pieces of several different movies. Apparently Bob Rafelson and screenwriter wanted to do a film noir blended with a love story. Why any sane person would think it a good idea to use a James M. Cain novel as the basis for a love story is beyond me.

Worse still, the two lead characters become totally different people. This means we no longer believe in the characters and consequently we no longer care about them.

And the contrived ending is the final nail in the movie’s coffin.

There are things like a great deal about the first half of the movie. Nicholson and Lange smoulder with lust and greed. The sex scenes are incredibly sleazy and dirty as they should be in a James M. Cain story. Nicholson and Lange are superb in those scenes. The production design is excellent. This is the 1930s totally stripped of glamour.

Unfortunately their performances become increasingly incoherent and confused.

One gets the impression of a movie made by a director and screenwriter (David Mamet) who had an idea of what they wanted to do but their idea was ill-judged and unworkable and inevitably resulted in a movie that loses its way completely.

This movie represents a spectacular missed opportunity. The production designer and cinematographer give it the perfect visual style. It has a dream cast. It should have worked. It does work superbly for the first hour. Then it falls apart.

Is Rafelson’s 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice worth seeing? In some ways yes, but it’s a very deeply flawed movie. The 1943 Italian version and the 1946 Hollywood version have problems as well. No-one has yet made the definitive film adaptation of this novel.