Monday, 30 May 2016

Arrow Round up:
Thieves’ Highway
(Jules Dassin, 1949)

Though the precise boundaries of “film noir” within modern movie-chat are nebulous at best (and seem to become more so each year, as the genre’s key era sinks further into history), I’m afraid I’ve got to raise my hand from the outset here and say that I don’t believe Jules Dassin’s ‘Thieves’ Highway’ – trumpeted as being “as tough as noir gets” in Arrow’s marketing materials – fits the category at all. In terms of imagery, worldview and subject matter, we’re looking at something quite different here… unless one were to expand the concept of “noir” to include every black & white Hollywood film that takes a somewhat cynical approach to life.

Not that I blame Arrow (or anyone else who has marketed this film over the years) for hitting the “noir” button. Based on plot synopsis alone, Dassin’s film is admittedly a bit of a hard sell, and this was apparently the case even on the film’s original release, when, despite glowing critical notices, local exhibitors in the US had a devil of a time actually getting people into cinemas to see the damn thing.

In one of the supplements to Arrow’s edition, critic Frank Krutnik makes the case for reclassifying ‘Thieves Highway’ under the banner of what is apparently known as “film gris” – a designation that I was previously unaware of. Coined by film scholar Thom Anderson, this term has been applied chiefly to a set of films released in-between the two Hollywood HUAC hearings in 1947 and 1951, wherein a clique of broadly left-leaning directors, keeping a low profile in the realm of the low budget crime programmers and to some extent shielded from criticism by sympathetic producers, turned away from the existential / individualist concerns of “classic” noir, and instead began to offer up a thinly veiled critique of American capitalism and the corrupt social interactions it encourages. (John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950), itself an obvious precursor to Dassin’s ‘Rififi’ (1955), would seem a key text here.)

Though it is not really a crime film in the conventional sense, ‘Thieves’ Highway’ would indeed seem to hit this alternative category with a perfect bulls-eye.

More than anything however, Dassin’s film reminded me of another movie by a blacklisted American director exiled in Europe (as Dassin would be shortly after finishing this film), Cy Endfield’s ‘Hell Drivers’ (1957). Like that film, ‘Thieves’ Highway’ is in some ways chiefly notable for the way in which it takes incredibly mundane subject matter – in this case, the travails of self-employed truck drivers transporting cargos of fruit from Fresno orchards to the San Francisco produce market – and crafts it into a compelling, tough guy adventure story.

Whereas ‘Hell Drivers’ takes a wildly pulpy, OTT approach to this task though, ‘Thieves Highway’ emerges as a little more… down to earth? Like the film’s hero Nick Garcos (played by Richard Conte), scriptwriter A.I. Bezzerides (‘They Drive By Night’, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’) was himself a second generation Greek immigrant whose father ran trucks of fruit between Fresno and San Francisco, and, like Garcos, Bezzerides also took up the yoke of the family business before Hollywood dough allowed him to make it as a professional writer.

As such, it’s a fair bet that a hefty chunk of autobiography made its way into both Bezzerides’ source novel (‘Thieves’ Market’ - published in ’48) and the script he developed it into. Certainly, ‘Thieves’ Highway’ carries a sense of realism and an attention to the day-to-day realities of working class life that is rare indeed in ‘40s Hollywood product, compressed into a sparse, forward-driving narrative that is gutsy enough to remain surprisingly compelling to this day.

By all accounts, one of Bezzerides’ overriding concerns as a writer lay in using his position to expose the multitude of “rip offs” foisted upon the common man at every level of society (a goal to which the crime/gangster genre is uniquely suited, needless to say), and with ‘Thieves’ Market’ / ‘Thieves’ Highway’ (note the pointed change in emphasis between the novel and movie titles) we can assume he landed the opportunity to do so more directly than at any other point in his writing career.

The film begins with Nick Garcos returning home from a stint in the navy to discover that his good-natured, easily manipulated father has been crippled after being sent home drunk in a sabotaged truck by his duplicitous creditors, and from that point on the movie is a roll-call of hard luck cases, from the immigrant farmers & fruit pickers being scammed on their produce by fast-talking truckers, to Nick’s partner Ed (Millard Mitchell) struggling to get to market in a jalopy “held together with spit”, to his fiancée (Barbara Lawrence), who flies to SF on the promise of marriage the next morning, only to find her would-be groom has been rolled by thugs for his newly acquired fortune and is recuperating in a prostitute’s apartment.

All of these are struggling, hardworking and sympathetically portrayed characters, but all are still clambering over each other to make a fast buck, whilst the apples they’re fighting over fly off the back of the trucks a tight corner, or sit rotting in the sun. Although ‘Thieves’ Highway’ never gets preachy or overtly political for a second, the script’s implications regarding the wasteful and corrupting nature of life in America could scarcely be clearer, whilst the fact that just about everybody on screen is a first or second generation immigrant adds a poignant verisimilitude to the portrayal of a treacherous world in which everyone seems to some extent an outsider.

Particularly pertinent in this regard is the late entry of Rica (celebrated Italian actress Valentina Cortese in her American debut), the aforementioned prostitute who, uh, ‘befriends’ Nick (this was a Code era picture remember) upon his arrival in San Francisco. A strange character whose introduction shifts the emphasis of the movie considerably, Rica doesn’t ring even remotely true as a lonely French (huh?) woman supposedly turning tricks in an apartment above a fruit market. In fact, it’s fair to say that Cortese’s performance seems to belong to an entirely different movie (a more elegant, sexually charged European one, to be precise) from the tough guy trucking stuff that surrounds it.

I can’t quite fathom Dassin's intention in placing such heavy emphasis on Cortese’s character in the second half of the film - the story of her romance with Nick certainly proves very difficult to reconcile with the otherwise sparse and fast-moving revenge narrative – but I’m hesitant to write her inclusion off entirely as a misjudgment, as her scenes with Conte undoubtedly have a certain frisson all of their own, adding a new dimension to the film that seems a deliberate attempt to take things in a potentially interesting direction, even if it is ultimately too tonally jarring and undermined by Production Code censorship to fully succeed.

Thinking further in fact, the notion that the hero of ‘Thieves’ Highway’ chucks his blonde, materialistic wife-to-be in order to take up with an iterant and melancholic woman of foreign extraction and questionable virtue – and for the new couple to furthermore be gifted with a deeply unconvincing “drive into the sunset” happy ending – seems a provocative addition to the edgy political subtext that can be extrapolated from the rest of the film.

Speaking of that revenge narrative meanwhile, for the sake of convenience the film’s assorted evils are all stacked at the door of crooked San Fran produce dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), an archetypal manipulative capitalist bully whose greedy scheming sees him regularly skirting the edges of the law. Whilst Nick’s dogged campaign to take him down comes with a pleasantly raw tang of “revenge of the downtrodden” vengeance about it, I feel that one of the few shortcomings of Bezzerides’ excellent script is his failure to “take things higher” in terms of delineating the chain of “rip-offs” at work in the produce market by bringing in the forces (whether cops, gangsters or local government) who are in turn leaning on Figlia, rather than leaving him as the end-of-the-line vis-à-vis the movie’s villainy.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Bezzerides himself was not to blame for this oversight (I’ve not read his source novel, so can’t compare the two). As appropriate as it may seem to modern viewers, explicitly calling out federal corruption and/or the influence of organized crime on market forces might well have pushed this already politically dicey property way beyond the studio’s comfort zone in this particularly sensitive era of American history.

As a director, Dassin always seemed to at drawing us into the precise mechanics of closed-system, masculine worlds – whether the high security prison of ‘Brute Force’ (1947), or the definitive police procedural of ‘The Naked City’ (’48) – and his depiction of the California trucking / fruit trading world in ‘Thieves’ Highway’ is equally vivid and believable.

Like many classic Hollywood directors, Dassin’s stylistic flourishes are all but invisible, but their contribution to the film’s overall effectiveness is profound. As in many of his films, the extensive (and, at the time, still quite novel) use of location shooting proves extremely beneficial, and, on the level of pure cinema, ‘Thieves Highway’ remains a blast, despite its potentially dispiriting subject matter.

Though the film’s political aspects and the stuff with Rica may provide meat for the theory-hounds, it is the high octane trucking stuff that will live longest in the memory of most viewers, with the gear-churning night-drives across winding mountain roads, the sweaty, fast-talking chaos of the market and the images of spilled apples cascading down placid hillsides all majestically portrayed.

Though anyone who comes to ‘Thieves’ Highway’ anticipating black hats, gats and femme fatales will be soundly disappointed, it nonetheless stands as both a uniquely raw and audacious film to have emerged from this particular time & place, and as a quintessential example of the kind of masculine, working class story that has pretty much entirely disappeared from cinema as demographics have shifted through the decades.

How often, these days, do you see commercial movies in which the precise method of repairing a drive shaft on an army surplus truck, or the per-box wholesale rate on golden delicious apples, are the key narrative issues upon which our heroes fates hang? As one of ‘Thieves Highway’ biggest action set-pieces unfolded, involving Nick being rescued by his driving partner after being nearly suffocated by roadside sand when his jack collapses mid-way through changing a wheel, I couldn’t help but reflect that you just don’t see this stuff on-screen any more. From such obvious companion pieces as Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) to grimly proletarian post-war thrillers like Cliff Owen’s ‘A Prize of Arms’ (1962) and the aforementioned ‘Hell Drivers’, it is a spirit of dour, engine oil-encrusted male enterprise that hasn’t so much disappeared from the world itself as it has simply disappeared from our culture.

It is interesting to reflect that the market conditions dramatised here probably remain largely unchanged to this day – in fact their impact has probably only been magnified by the advent of bigger, better transport networks and the march of economic globalisation – yet to all intents and purposes, they have simply become invisible to us. The fact is, the people involved with this level of industry simply don’t go to the movies anymore, and even if they did, chances are they wouldn’t care to see their own workaday struggles staring back at them.

Meanwhile, those of us who do have the time and money to invest in an increasingly privileged popular culture probably can't much relate to the life represented by some lowly grease-monkey wrestling with a hand-crank at the side of the road (or his nearest 21st century equivalent), just as we prefer not to spend too much time thinking about where our apples come from. Chances are, they’re still spilling down hillsides and rotting in the sun en route to our preferred ethically rebranded supermarkets, but on a scale Dassin and Bezzerides could scarcely have imagined, as the cameras look elsewhere.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Arrow Round up:
The Rambling Guitarist
(Buichi Saitô, 1959)

When I first began reading up on Japanese cinema a few years back, I’ll confess I found Nikkatsu studio’s oft-referenced “borderless action” style a difficult concept to grasp. From my clueless Western perspective, the Nikkatsu films I had seen up to that point didn’t seem particularly noteworthy for their globe-trotting agenda or concentration on “action”. On the contrary, they seemed fairly conventional stories of Japanese people doing things in contemporary Japan, so… what’s the big idea, y’know?

Having now read (and more importantly, watched) far more widely around the subject however, I hope I am more able to appreciate the extent to which Nikkatsu’s house style from the mid/late ‘50s onwards represented a significant departure from the established norms of Japanese commercial filmmaking, immediately differentiating the studio’s output from that of its competitors.

Watching films made by those competitors during the ‘50s and ‘60s – be they Daiei historical dramas and ghost stories, Toho prestige pictures or Toei ninkyo yakuza productions – it soon becomes clear that the ethical and social imperatives guiding their narratives are of a very different order to those we take for granted in the West, reflecting (if not always uncritically) the complex patterns of mutual responsibility and obligation that underpin Japan’s unique social order.

A Toei yakuza in a contemporary-set film may adopt Western dress and (to a certain extent) Western habits, but his goals, and the ways in which he goes about achieving them, will be very different to those of a French or American gangster, and it is this basic difference in narrative drive that can sometimes make such films a tough gig for non-Japanese viewers to fully engage with.

As a result, the phenomenally popular ninkyo sub-genre of the early 1960s remains largely off the menu to us subtitle-dependent crime movie fans, whilst even the more widely celebrated jitsuroku (‘True Account’) films of the early ‘70s have a tendency to leave unprepared foreign viewers emotionally sideswiped when they reach the inevitable blood-soaked conclusion - feeling as if we should be sharing in some grand emotional catharsis, but unable to put the pieces together well enough to understand quite what form it should take.

Returning to Nikkatsu’s output with this background in mind, their “borderless action” concept – concisely defined as an attempt to tell stories which are “IN Japan, but not OF Japan” - suddenly begins to make a whole lot of sense. To the Western viewer, the studio’s run-of-the-mill genre programmers (as opposed to the work of their more audacious and experimental directors, which we’ll leave to one side for the moment) feel breezy, comfortable and familiar. Far more explicitly modelled on American (and to some extent European) templates, they still strive to tell distinctly Japanese stories, but recalibrated to fit a frame of reference that those raised on classic Hollywood thrillers and European melodrama can immediately understand.

This approach, together with Nikkatsu’s co-operative approach to licensing their back catalogue for foreign release, has helped make the studio’s output feel far more prominent for overseas fans of Japanese cinema than it presumably would have been for contemporary domestic audiences, but nonetheless, it is worth noting that Nikkatsu certainly didn’t have foreign distribution in mind when they concieved their “borderless” style. Rather, our easy enjoyment of their films today is an unintentional by-product of the studio’s deliberate attempts to cultivate a younger, more cosmopolitan audience within Japan itself, targeting a segment of quasi-rebellious, pro-Western youth whose aspirations had thus far been largely ignored by the other studios.

With the shadow of Japanese national identity thus looming over them like a particularly aggressive elephant in the room, Nikkatsu’s contracted filmmakers were left with several options for fulfilling their “borderless” agenda. On the one hand, they could choose to simply ignore Japanese culture altogether, as can be seen in such gangster films as Yasuharu Hasebe’s ‘Massacre Gun’ and Takashi Nomura’s pointedly titled ‘A Colt is My Passport’ (both 1967), creating an eerie trans-Pacific urban dreamland in which to play out universal dramas that, with a few tweaks here and there, could just as easily have taken place in Paris or Chicago.

Or, more interestingly, Nikkatsu’s directors and scriptwriters could kick the proverbial elephant in the guts (so to speak) and use the “borderless” blueprint to directly explore the cultural dislocation of life in post-WWII Japan, thus cementing the themes that drive many of Nikkatsu’s best (or at least, most interesting) films. Foreign characters (who pretty much never appear in other Japanese films of this period) are frequent visitors to Nikkatsu’s world, whilst their melodramatic youth films are often set near ports or American airforce bases, and make great play of dramatising the reactions of young people to the brand names, pop music and other exotic imports that characterise such transitory, almost literally borderless, locations.

Within this mixed up world, the heroine of Noboru Kaji’s frothy ‘Whirlwind of Love’ (1969) flits around Tokyo channeling Audrey Hepburn in a very un-Japanese fit of perpetual romantic indecision, whilst Tamio Kawachi’s rich buddies jet off to The Alps, where they still somehow manage to swig from bottles of Asahi, in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Woman From The Sea (1959). In Kurahara’s ‘Black Sun’ (1964), Kawachi’s jazz-obsessed drop-out gabbles away to Chico Roland’s rogue GI in fragments of broken English, whilst the best entries in the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71) poignantly explore Japanese youth’s love / hate relationship with American pop culture and the colonial ambitions it represents.

If you’re wondering what in the hell all this extended scene-setting has to do with assessing the merits of Buichi Saitô’s ‘The Rambling Guitarist’ (as released for the first time with English subs on Arrow’s recent ‘Nikkatsu Diamond Guys’ set), well, the truth is that, basically, it is a film about which I can find very little to say, beyond the broader context provided above.

Whilst global cinephiles might have been introduced to Nikkatsu through the ground-breaking work of auteurs such as Kurahara, Kon Ichikawa and of course my man Seijun Suzuki, in truth those directors were all outsiders, whose best work stood out simply because it went against the grain of official company policy. Beyond the sheer novelty of their “borderless” ideology in fact, the vast majority of Nikkatsu’s pictures were extremely conservative in stylistic terms, with studio bosses demanding a steady schedule of slick, crowd-pleasing vehicles for their ever-expanding roster of proto-idol heart-throb star performers – a phenomenon of which ‘The Rambling Guitarist’ represents a quintessential example. In case you’re wondering, that means Saito plays it safe and sticks firmly to the former of the two categories I outlined above.

Seemingly modelled on the light-weight formula of Elvis Presley’s early movies (minus most of the music), the film sees charismatic, guitar-strumming drifter Akira Kobayashi arriving in a small seaside town where, in classic Zatoichi style, he soon becomes embroiled in a feud between the local yakuza clan, sparking up a romance with the daughter of the slightly less nefarious of the two bosses (played by Nobuo Kaneko, whom you recognize from his role as the perpetually scheming Yamamori-san in Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Battles Without Honour & Humanity’ saga) and obtaining an advanced apprenticeship in yakuza cool from the ubiquitous Jô Shishido - who looks just as bad-ass as ever here, prior to his regrettable ‘hamster cheeks’ plastic surgery disaster, and sporting some nifty powder blue duds.

Fast-paced, brightly and beautifully photographed in no-expense-spared colour and full of likeable characters, easily resolved moral dilemmas and much romantic beach-side moping, ‘The Rambling Guitarist’ is seventy-something minutes of the finest undemanding, professionally rendered entertainment that Japan’s commercial movie industry had to offer.

A showdown on a fishing boat between Kobayashi and Shishido is a particular highlight (apparently, ‘60s yakuza liked to retain their uniform of tailored suits and shades even when crewing on a sea voyage), but that aside, basically everything here falls out of one’s brain immediately after viewing, leaving little behind beyond a vague feeling of having been satisfactorily entertained - which, I suspect, is exactly the way the big-wigs at Nikkatsu liked to do business.

Mildly diverting tales of happy-go-lucky drifters hanging out with chicks on the beach may not necessarily equate to essential viewing for us 21st century, first world viewers, but if you can put yourself in the shoes of someone born into the hunger and chaos of 1940s Tokyo, with nothing to watch at the flicks except endless tales of doomed, conscience-stricken Samurai, then innocuous films like ‘The Rambling Guitarist’ can take on a new significance. Steeped in what now seems a strain of forlorn, nostalgic optimism, they offer a fleeting fantasy of unburdened personal freedom that can speak just as strongly of the hopes and fears of Japanese youth at this point in time as any of their national cinema’s more weighty offerings.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Arrow Round up:
Hired To Kill
(Nico Mastorakis, 1990)

Hitting shelves soon as part of Arrow’s inexplicable campaign to revive the work of VHS-era Greek exploitation kingpin Nico Mastorakis (whose 1986 film ‘The Edge of Terror’ aka ‘The Wind’ we covered here a while back as a VHS Purgatory post), ‘Hired To Kill’s forthcoming release reminded me that I have actually owned the film on DVD for years and never got around to watching it -- until now, that is.

Purchased as part of a “10 DVDs for £10” deal from a local junk shop if I recall correctly, my copy of the film bears the seal of Hollywood DVD – celebrated suppliers of Godfrey Ho ninja movies to Poundland stores across the nation – and, at the time, my rationale for dropping 50p on it probably didn’t extend much beyond “Oliver Reed? SOLD!”, to be honest.

(Further proof, as if it were needed, that whatever inflated pay-packets independent movie producers might dish out to contemptuous, washed up legends to ensure their cooperation in creatively bankrupt genre vehicles, it’ll be worth it in the long run as long as goons like me are still buying the tickets.)

Anyway, as it transpires, ‘Hired To Kill’ is a head-spinningly goofy sub-Cannon action flick starring a charisma-free muscle dude named Brian Thompson, who perhaps ever so slightly resembles a very young Lee Marvin if you squint, but basically spends the bulk of his screen time looking like he just got thrown off the university rugby team for banging his head against the locker-room wall too many times.(1)

Thompson plays a mercenary hired by sleazy uber-capitalist George Kennedy to take down Oliver Reed, who is the tyrannical ruler of some ill-defined rogue nation. This will allow their local power-to-the-people resistance movement (headed by a barely-in-this-movie-at-all Jose Ferrer) to take charge, ready for Kennedy and his shady CIA-backed cohorts to sweep in and exploit the hell out of everybody. Or something.

From this agreeably cynical starting point, things swiftly descend (ascend?) into la-la land when it is explained that security in Reed’s dictatorship is so tight that there is only one possible plan that will get Thompson inside. That of course being that he will pose as a famous fashion photographer, recruiting a dirty half-dozen of beautiful female fighters (a women’s prison boxing champion, a duplicitous Mossad agent, a mute girl who bloodily dispatched the soldiers who murdered her family – you get the idea) to serve as his “models”, thus allowing them to infiltrate the highest echelons of wherever-the-hell-it-is society and to pad out the middle half hour of the movie with gratuitous Andy Sidaris style swimsuit footage until such a point as it is deemed prudent for the girls to change back into their khakis and go all “paintballing weekend” for the inevitable closing reel of exploding barns and low flying helicopters. Splendid.

You might be thinking that seems like a fairly unlikely means by which to effect a coup d'état in a military dictatorship, but look here – George Kennedy says his experts have looked at ALL the possibilities, and this is the ONLY ONE that will work - so you can shut up.

(Let the record state that ‘Doin’ It For The Money’, the sleazed up, sub-Prince electro-pop number that accompanies all of the fashion shoot / pool loungin’ sequences, is a minor masterwork.)

At this point, we should probably address the confusion regarding where this film is actually supposed to be set. Although the text on the back of the DVD box refers to “a volatile Mid East nation”, in practice it looks an awful lot like a quiet Greek island, and all references to the country’s name or location are pointedly avoided during the first half of the film… until that is, Mastorakis suddenly drops the pretense and has his characters begin referring to it as – uh – “CYPRA”. Subtle, Nico.

No one however seems to have communicated any of this to Oliver Reed, who turns up to the party as a full-on South American ‘El Presidente’ type figure, complete with a mangled Hispanic accent, a red star peaked cap and a truly magnificent moustache.

Happily though, Ollie is a lot more engaged and enthusiastic here than he was in many of his latter-day “descent into cheque-collecting ignominy” appearances, probably due to Mastorakis’s wise decision to place his character in a lot of scenarios that the old boy presumably quite enjoyed – shouting at people whilst waving a machine gun around, quaffing wine at a dinner table surrounded by glamorous ladies, and, in one intensely uncomfortable sequence, holding forth about the artistic qualities of his own love-making whilst groping a woman’s breasts from behind.

The latter scene, it should be noted, occurs shortly before Thompson – whose fashion designer cover story requires him to undertake the least convincing impression of a homosexual ever seen on screen – kisses Reed full on the mouth, in a sequence you can guarantee never reached take # 2. Whilst I would generally tend toward the opinion that you’d have to be out of your mind to buy ‘Hired To Kill’ for full price on blu-ray, the chance to see Reed’s subsequent reaction shot in HD should be worth the entry price alone.

If, reading this, you’re thinking ‘Hired To Kill’ sounds like a dose of pure trash movie nirvana, well, to a certain extent you’re not wrong. The dialogue and line delivery alone are enough to potentially make this the stuff of snarky Youtube legend, and, if you do the decent thing and wait until the point in the evening when you’ve reached the end of a six pack before hitting play, the sheer ridiculous, wrong-headed grandeur of the whole venture will leave you speechless…. for about fifty minutes or so.

At that point, you might find yourself checking your watch and reflecting that that this cheapo sub-Cannon action movie you’ve been watching has been conspicuously lacking in any cheapo, sub-Cannon action. In fact, aside from the inevitable training montage, there has actually been no action whatsoever, which is something of an astounding oversight for a film of this nature.

Much like its close cousin Ted V. Mikels’ ‘The Doll Squad’ (1973), ‘Hired To Kill’ is the kind of “action” movie in which the campy faffing about that leads up to the action is a sheer delight, but when it gives way to the actual real deal of people in army boots with prop machine guns creeping around door-frames and throwing hand grenades, well…. I guess the basic issue is, to make that kind of stuff exciting (as opposed to a show reel for a second rate stunt team) takes a certain degree of talent for dynamic filmmaking and narrative tension, so… yeah.

I’m sure the dozen or so stuntmen who comprise Oliver Reed’s unstoppable army [cue compulsory Elvis Costello singalong] all did their best, and it’s my duty to point out that some of the women who comprise Brian Thompson’s all-girl commando squad actually seem like fairly capable and interesting actresses who richly deserved better roles than those assigned to them here, but regardless – clearly the all-out, insurance policy defying, seat-of-yr-pants destruction fest that could have sent us out on a high and secured ‘Hired To Kill’s place as an all-time dumb-ass classic just didn't materialise.

At the end of the day, the sad fact is that all Nico Mastorakis movies, however entertaining they may initially appear, seem to eventually succumb to the all too familiar haze of safe, under-achieving blandness common to post-1990 straight-to-video productions, and ‘Hired to Kill’ is unfortunately no exception, with its essential failure to fulfill the expectations of its genre condemning it to splutter out and hit the curb, irrespective of the uproarious highlights that have kept us rolling to within reach of the hour mark.

But still – Oliver Reed in unexpected man-on-man kiss.

By the way, did you know that ‘Nights Of Cabiria’ and Antonioni's 'The Passenger' aren’t out on blu-ray yet?


(1)A quick IMDB trawl reveals that Brian Thompson previously appeared as “Punk” in The Terminator, and in the no doubt pivotal role of “Night Slasher” in Stallone’s ‘Cobra’. In between numerous Hollywood bit-parts, he also headlined a Fred Olen Ray movie (‘Commando Squad’), and, with crushing inevitability, wrote, directed and starred in a 2014 production named ‘The Extendables’.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Arrow Round up:
Day of Anger
(Tonino Valerii, 1967)

Lacking in either the stylistic grandeur of Leone, the sweaty political heft of Sollima or the transgressive pulp grit of Corbucci, Tonino Valerii’s first Spaghetti Western initially seems a pretty routine affair, very much channeling the workaday professionalism of the kind of movies Joel McCrea or Randolph Scott were headlining in America ten years earlier.

This being post-Leone though, there’s also a strong strain of blood-thirsty, samurai-style lone wolf violence in the mix here too, and whenever things hustle toward a showdown, Valerii steps up to the plate with a controlled, dramatic directorial sensibility that, if somewhat more retrained than those of his aforementioned contemporaries, nonetheless delivers the goods just the way we want ‘em.

Needless to say, Lee Van Cleef is a total bad-ass in this one, playing one of his best ever ruthless, squinty-eyed gunfighters (which is saying something, given the extent to which he cornered the market in ruthless, squinty-eyed gunfighters), and if you like your westerns full of the kind of lightning fast, unpredictable kill-shots that raise an involuntary “woop!” or “hell yeah!”, ‘Day of Anger’ has you well covered.

Meanwhile, a miscast Giuliano Gemma as Van Cleef’s protégé / successor plods through his “zero to hero” story arc divertingly enough as various crooks and baddies (Harry Alan Towers regular Walter Rilla and the great Al Mulok amongst them) creep and seethe on the margins, awaiting their comeuppance. Ernesto Gastaldi’s script is pretty good as far as these things go (by which I mean pacing is solid and the characters consistent, with only occasional outbreaks of errant nonsense), but when Van Cleef is off-screen and folks start yapping, things inevitably simmer down a bit, hitting a comfortable “dusty ol’ B western” comfort zone.

The film’s second half has a lot of great stuff with Van Cleef building a grand, quasi-psychedelic casino/saloon whose visual aspect is just as awesome as it is historically questionable, and generally striding around in ass-kicking “I own this town” type fashion, all of which is splendidly enjoyable for those of us who always find ourselves cheering for Van Cleef even when (as usual) he’s playing an utter bastard.

‘Day of Anger’ is also notable for featuring one of the most absurdly contrived set-pieces I’ve ever seen in a non-comedic western, wherein some guy appears out of nowhere and challenges Van Cleef to a duel, before specifying that this is to take place on horseback, with powder & shot muskets. Valerii and co. obviously thought the resulting sequence was a big showstopper, but in truth it simply comes across us ridiculous (not least because it causes us to wonder why this sinister stranger specified such an unusual manner of engagement, given that he is apparently not very good at it).

Elsewhere, Riz Ortolani’s music is none the worse for sounding like it was mainly knocked up on a few electric guitars and a pair of bongos, and the movie’s US poster [reproduced above] is one of my all-time favourites. According to IMDB, no less a personage than Paul Naschy pops up here as an extra, but I didn’t spot him.

Despite the attempts of both Gastaldi and Italian critic Roberto Curti to attribute grand mythic weight to ‘Day of Anger’s storyline on the extras to the Arrow edition, this movie is basically a pure potboiler, largely devoid of politics, realism or any but the most basic thematic significance. Whilst it can’t pretend to measure up to the work of the three Sergios or the other one-off masterpieces that comprise the A-list of Spaghettis though, it’s certainly entertaining and, for want of a better word, COOL, enough to give it a top table position on the genre’s B-team.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Arrow Video Round-Up.


Whilst I would never wish to post anything on this blog that could be seen as shilling for or uncritically cheerleading for a particular brand or commercial enterprise, it nonetheless behests me to repeat a truth that should be plainly obvious to anyone who still maintains an interest in owning niche/genre films on physical media: namely, that the UK’s Arrow Video have been absolutely killing it over the past couple of years, orchestrating a seemingly endless schedule of releases, the breadth, depth, quality and general audacity of which is enough to send even the most grounded of fans into an occasional frenzy.

Whilst I don’t by any means support all of Arrow’s title choices or marketing decisions, their Japanese releases alone have been enough to repeatedly push me into “dreams come true” territory, and I’d go as far as to say that their previously unthinkable restoration & revival of such mistreated masterworks as Borowzyck’s ‘Dr Jekyll et les Femmes’, Donald Cammell’s ‘White of the Eye’ and Matt Cimber's ‘The Witch Who Came From the Sea' represent an invaluable gift to the world of cinema as a whole. From a euro-horror POV meanwhile, they deserve a whole other set of high fives simply for finally getting decent looking versions of ‘Blood & Black Lace’ and ‘Nightmare City’ on the shelves, and, well… you get the idea.

As if that weren’t enough, Arrow have also recently upped their charm offense against yours truly by allowing me to win a prize draw stemming from their annual customer survey, thus allowing me to claim a huge pile of their releases entirely gratis. In addition to the substantial haul of discs acquired via several recent sale events, this basically means I currently have Arrow blu-rays comin’ outta my ears – a situation that will no doubt be familiar to many people with a fondness for films and a certain amount of disposable income.

By means of channeling this happy circumstance into some long-overdue content for this blog therefore, I thought it might be a good time for me to flex my shorter-than-usual movie review muscles and knock out a few summations of my thoughts on some off the odder and less-celebrated films that could easily get lost in the shuffle of Arrow’s big-hitter releases.

I’ll be posting these one every few days over the next couple of weeks, sans screen-shots but hopefully plus some second-rate wise-cracking and helpful “what the hell is this movie – should I buy it?” style consumer advice. We begin tomorrow. What thrills!

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Brit Apocalypse Redux.

(Manor Books [U.S.], 1974 / cover artist unknown.)

CATASTROPHE: Mass immigration / civil war.

(Hodder, 1968 / cover artist unknown.)

CATASTROPHE: Earthquakes.

Always the way isn’t it? Just a few weeks after my doom-sodden Nature of the Catastrophe post, I snagged a couple of great additions to my collection of British apocalypse literature, both acquired from a decidedly un-apocalyptic Falmouth, where the proprietor of Benford Books on High Street uttered the fateful words, “I’ve got a few more boxes of science fiction out the back, if you want to have a look.”

It’s interesting to see ‘Fugue For a Darkening Island’ slightly retitled for this American edition (presumably somebody decided those backward colonials wouldn’t know what a “Fugue” is), with a lovely ‘70s action movie styled illustration that belies the book’s grimly dispiriting tone. I lost my previous copy of this book some time ago, but I have extremely strong memories of it, so look forward to revisiting it.

I’ve never read ‘A Wrinkle In The Skin’, but, given how unhealthily fixated I am on Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass’, I can only hope it will prove similarly edifying.

My apologies for the recent dearth of content here, by the way. All I can do is vainly promise that a wealth of new content – with actual writing and stuff – is currently in the works, so keep watching this space, etc.