Monday, March 18, 2013

On Location

Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey have a laugh on the set of The Manchurian Candidate


Claudia Cardinale

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Week of Movie Watching

Crazed Fruit – Strange name, great film. This 1956 offering from director Ko Nakahira takes its name from a slang term for the post-WWII generation of spoiled Japanese youth. Fruit tells the story of 2 brothers and the girl that one, then the other falls in love with. The problem is, she isn’t what she seems to be. The film presents a group of young men who live in a world of wealth, women, drinking and irresponsibility. It’s not by accident that there doesn’t seem to be an adult close to them. The love between the sober, younger Haruji and the beautiful Eri seems to be storybook stuff, but unbeknownst to him, she is also involved with his worldly older brother. The films conclusion is simply one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, and I guarantee it will stay with you long after you see it. Highly recommended.
The Purchase Price – Pre-code William Wellman tidbit from 1932 stars Barbara Stanwyck as a woman on the run who becomes a mail-order bride for an uptight farmer. There isn’t much to recommend here – The films' tension is supposed to be developed by whether the farmer (George Brent) finally succumbs to Stanwycks charms. The problem is there is no reason why she should love him – He has all the charm of a bowl of cold porridge. This disc is part of the series of pre-code “naughty” films, but this one is a bit on the tame side. The only bit that is kind of clever is a scene that Stanwyck does on a train with 3 other mail order brides. The conversation is funny in that silly double entrendre way, and the fact that one of the women is eating a banana is surely not a co-incidence. Not really recommended, however.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Movies of My Life

The films of Sam Fuller are tough – It’s imprinted on their DNA. Fuller wasn’t just a Hollywood pseudo-tough guy poseur. Having worked in his teens as a crime reporter, and having worked a pulp writer, and as an infantryman in WWII, he earned his bona fides as a hardscrabble guy. That background is why his films have that hard edge to them that never seems anything but genuine. My favorite Fuller films are film like that, films that have that gruff, unsentimental vibe to them. I’m thinking of Pickup on South Street, and of Steel Helmet, with its crusty, cigar-chomping sergeant played by Gene Evans (a Fuller avatar if there ever was one!). But most of all I think of my favorite Fuller film, the little-seen Underworld USA from 1961.

Underworld belongs in the tradition of man-going-after-bad-guys-who- done-him-wrong gangster films, but I think the reason I think it stands apart from most of them, is the way it treats its “hero” Tully Devlin (Cliff Robertson). This is a guy who is as sentimental as a set of brass knuckles - a true anti-hero.

When a teenaged Tully (David Kent) witnesses his father’s murder, he’s not a babe in the woods. He is already someone who seems destined for jail as a thief.  We’ve already seen him lift a wallet off a drunk. The father is a street hustler also, and that’s probably why he found himself in that dark alley at the wrong time. When the cops come to investigate the crime, Tully doesn’t co-operate, even though he knows one of the killers. In his mind, he’s already planning his revenge.

The film shows Tully getting in more trouble, and going to jail. This development is beyond inevitable – it’s intentional. Tully throws a rock through a window when he knows there’s a copy right around the corner.

It’s while he is in prison that he learns that one of the murderers is in the same jail, and is near death. Tully arranges to get transferred to the prison clinic in order to get close to the dying man. When he finally confronts the killer, it’s a bit unsettling. The old man is sick and very close to the end, and when Tully tells him who he is, the killer begs for forgiveness. Tully coldly informs him that he will forgive him - If he gives the names of the other three killers. I find myself conflicted in this scene. Although I want the killers to pay for their crime, it’s easy to feel pity for the dying man, because he seeks absolution for his crime. Tully’s forgiveness, however, isn’t genuine – It’s just a step in the process. He’s the one who comes across as the monster.

Tully now finds himself out of jail, and now knows the names of the men he wants. Problem is that all three are powerful crime lords, and getting to them will be next to impossible. During a late-night spying session at the home of one of the killers, he catches a break. A hired killer (a cool and cruel Richard Rust) brings in a female drug mule with the intention of killing her. Tully steps in to save her, and steals some of the dope, which he uses to give him an in with the mob.

I’m always fascinated by the relationship between Tully and the Rust character Gus. Gus is basically assigned to train Tully, and seems to give off the vibe of being a pretty good guy. There is a scene where Gus talks how the mob uses charity work as a front for their activities. He describes how the mob boss opens up his gigantic pool, and how he, Gus, actually acted as a lifeguard on one occasion, stating “I liked that.”

I think this little section is included because there is a later scene where Gus runs down a little girl in cold blood. It’s a harrowing scene of cruelty, and it is given even more impact because it’s done by this smiling ex lifeguard. Despite his demeanor, Gus is capable of anything.

Although it is stretching it a bit to call it a romance, there is a relationship that develops between Tully and the drug girl, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn). He saves her, and brings her home to have his surrogate mother (Beatrice Kay) look after her, but he isn’t getting too close.  When she makes an offhand remark about their possibly getting married, his response cuts to the bone: “You must be on the needle”. It’s willfully hurtful, and it demonstrates finally that Tully is deeply damaged. The “mother” character Sandy is the conscience in this film. She’s the one who tells him that he is only killing himself with his thirst for revenge, and that he doesn’t seem to notice this woman who cares for him.

Tully settles into a relationship with a District Attorney (Larry Gates), and uses this to start to destroy the syndicate from within. The DA feeds him false information, and he presents it back to the mob bosses, who start knocking each other off. There’s a striking scene where Tully goes to confront one of the bosses just before Gus is scheduled to kill him. Tully beats the shit out of the older man, while telling about how he watched his father get brutalized years before. It’s instructive to see how Fuller shoots this scene. We see the crook groaning in pain on the floor, while the ostensible “good guy’ hovers over him and stalks him as he tries to crawl away. Again, Tully is portrayed as the heavy here.

With all the killers finally dead, Tully goes back to Cuddles and starts talking about marriage. This change in him is striking, and it points up that his quest for the death of these men has robbed him of much of his humanity. With the quest completed, it’s like a malignancy has been cut out of him. The DA tries to tell him that there is still work to do – The big boss is still out there, but Tully isn’t interested.  Ah, but it’s never that simple, is it? Tully is now expected to help Gus wipe out the rest of the family of the little girl, and one other person, as well – Cuddles.

Underworld USA is a noir, and as such, touches on a lot of the themes that were central to Noir: The damaged hero, the misguided obsession, the central character finding himself trapped in a situation he should have walked away from. What elevates Underworld for me is the way that Fuller doesn’t let himself be swayed by the temptation to sand off any of the edges from his characters. He treats Tully the way he treats the bad guys; capable of cruelty and evil. The world portrayed here isn’t pretty, and neither are its people.


Underworld USA is not available on DVD, but can be streamed off Amazon.

My 2006 commentary on Allan Baron’s Blast of Silence, a cinematic cousin of Underworld USA

Sunday, March 03, 2013

My Week of Movie Watching

A Single Man – Drama from 2009 stars Colin Firth as a gay University professor struggling with the recent death of his partner. The film follow him through one day, at the end of which, he plans to kill himself. Julianne Morris stars as his alcoholic childhood friend. There is a lot to recommend here, like Firth’s lovely, subtle performance, and the production design, which is a dead-on perfect evocation of 1962 California. Despite all this, I found that the film left me a little bit cold, because none of the characters really engaged me personally. Still, Recommended. 

Snatch – This Brit gangster flick is wall-to-wall energy, and one of the most quotable movies I’ve ever seen. It involves two plots that kind of run side by side: In one, a bunch of toughs try to recover a stolen diamond. In another, a shabby pair of  boxing promoters try to get a fight with a nasty mob boss without getting themselves eaten by pigs. The thing that makes Snatch such a joy are the characters that populate it. Characters such as: Turkish, Brick Top, Bullet-Tooth Tony, Boris the Blade, and an Irish gypsy boxer (Brad Pitt) who doesn’t utter one understandable sentence. The dialogue is razor sharp and shockingly profane. My favorite, uttered by the nasty mob boss Brick Top:
 "Do you know what "nemisis" means? A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appopriate agent.  Personified in this case by an 'orrible cunt....Me."

Wait Until Dark – Top notch thriller from 1967 stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized by three bad guys trying to recover a cache of heroin hidden in a doll she possesses. This role was a bit out of Audrey's comfort zone, but she does a good job here, as does Alan Arkin as the baddest of the bad guys. It’s not perfect - There are a couple of plot points that are best not examined too closely, like why Hepburns’ character would send a young girl out to find her husband in New York – at night - but it’s a hugely fun watch, especially the last half an hour. There is a brilliant little set piece about how Hepburn uses a ringing telephone to expose the villains. A bit of trivia: This film is based on a play by Frederick Knott, who was also the man who wrote Dial M for Murder. Recommended.