Thursday, 4 March 2021

Noir Diary # 13 / Thoughts on…
Mildred Pierce
(Michael Curtiz, 1945)


I.

Ever since I decided to start writing up my viewings of ‘40s/’50s Film Noir a couple of years ago, I’ve found myself bedevilled by the question of where, precisely, the boundaries of ‘noir’ lie. It’s an issue I’ve wrestled with to some extent in pretty much every one of these Noir Diary posts to date, and, with every critic, fan, reference book and blu-ray label on earth drawing their preferred demarcation line somewhere entirely different from all the others, it is not a debate which seems liable to be happily resolved any time soon.

In trying to find a workable way to define ‘noir’ therefore, my current thinking is that, though we may treat it as such for the sake of convenience, noir is not a genre, in the conventional sense of the term. In some ways, this is a pretty obvious point to make - after all, no one in the USA prior to about 1975 ever sat down and said “I’m gonna make a film noir” - but I think it bears repeating.

Instead, I believe noir can probably be best understood as an ineffable essence - a kind of aesthetic virus, if you will - which infects a wide swathe of cinema and literature to a greater or lesser degree. As irreducibly ‘noir’ as the canonical classics of the form may seem, it’s worth remembering that they all simultaneously belong to other genres as well. To the people who wrote and directed them, the 40s/50s films we now categorise as noir were gangster movies, police procedurals, psychological thrillers, murder mysteries, or, in this case, even a quote-unquote ‘women’s picture’.

The germ of what we now call ‘noir’ is something which crept into them from outside, changing and perverting the material it infected; eating away moral clarity, tilting camera set ups and dimming the lights like some celluloid Dutch elm disease. And, like everyone’s favourite virus here in the second decade of the 21st century, the effects of this bug were varied and unpredictable in the extreme.

Some films emerged so slathered in the thematics and visuals of noir than their root genre almost shrivels up and dies; for others, noir simply hangs in the background, barely perceptible, like some eerie seed of doubt. Then, there are movies in which the noir is spread unevenly - confined to certain scenes or sub-plots, or hitting full strength in some reels whilst completely disappearing from others. In spite of its storied position in the noir canon, ‘Mildred Pierce’ fits perfectly into this latter category.

II. 

Considered as a standalone short film, opening fifteen minutes of ‘Mildred Pierce’ are as vivid and intoxicating an invocation of the 1940s So-Cal noir aesthetic as has ever been conjured before the cameras.

Straight out of the opening credits, the sound of six gunshots is foleyed over an exterior shot of a luxurious yet lonely Malibu beach house with a shiny black sedan parked outside. Cut to the interior, where a man in formal dress spins to face the camera, clutching his chest. He just has time to gasp the name of the movie’s titular heroine(?) before he hits the floor, as inert as the remains of the chic standing lamp he pulled down with him.

Cut to a breath-taking crane-shot of (a studio recreation of) a rain-sodden Santa Monica seafront, water gleaming on the wooden boardwalk in the light of neon hoardings for bars and seafood restaurants as the unmistakable figure of Joan Crawford - looking like a Cossack officer in her wide-shouldered fur coat and hat - strides away from us toward the pier. 

As she stares at the black waves below, her contemplation is broken by the sound of a beat cop’s baton tapping on the iron railings. The first words spoken in the film if we discount the murder victim’s final utterance, the cop’s ensuing lines (“if you take a swim, I’ve gotta take a swim. Is that fair? Because you feel like killing yourself, I gotta get pneumonia?”) give us a brilliant example of the approach to dialogue which will remain consistent throughout the film. Most readily attributable to sole credited screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, these lines are simple and to the point, lacking the literary self-consciousness of many post-war noirs, but are nonetheless attention-grabbing, memorable and devoid of cliché. (1)

(It is only on repeat viewings that we might note that, a few years prior to this in the film’s chronology, Mildred’s beloved younger daughter did indeed die from pneumonia after “taking a swim”, instigating a fatal shift in her mother’s psychological make-up.)

Anyway, the cop’s well-chosen words seem to do the trick, turning Mildred (for of course it is she) away from her watery grave and pointing her in the direction of a loud, claustrophobic seafront bar, where she immediately falls in with the lecherous, fast-talking Wally Fay (Jack Carson), an old friend who seemingly owns the joint. Clearly an inveterate hustler, Wally is suspicious when Mildred - who, we are given to understand, has routinely rejected his crude advances since time immemorial - invites him back to her pad for a quiet drink.

Mildred is clearly in an unsettled state of mind, but, like every noir fall guy, Wally prides himself on keeping his eye on the prize, never looking a gift horse in the mouth, etc etc. So, before we know it, he’s propping up the sleek, chromium bar back at that accursed beach house, boastfully bantering to himself, as Mildred slips out, ostensibly to change, and locks the door behind her.

By the time he finds the corpse, it’s too late. Careening around the increasingly labyrinthine beach house, Wally ascends winding, disorientating flights of stairs, dense lattices of shadow thrown by the house’s baroque / art deco accoutrements hemming him in from all sides, as he too cries Mildred’s name.

Photography by Ernest Haller, whose CV includes ‘Gone With The Wind’, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and 183 other top-flight flicks, and art direction from Curtiz’s regular collaborator Anton Grot (also see: Doctor X), are, of course, fiendishly superb here, briefly bringing a touch of Orwellian nightmare sci-fi to proceedings.

Eventually making his exit by crashing through the French windows, Wally briefly staggers across the sand - inevitably reminding us of the unforgettable finale to Robert Aldrich’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ a decade later - before he is frozen in the beam of a searchlight, trained on him from the road above by the cops Mildred presumably called.

Soon regaining his wise-cracking composure once he’s back amongst other men, he tells them, “you know, this is a pretty big night for you guys; yeah, lots of excitement - there’s a stiff in there”. “Izzat so? And I suppose you were running right down to the station to report it?” retorts the younger cop, who’s clearly got Wally’s number.

Amazing. Just amazing. Really, if you’re in search of the condensed essence of ‘noir’, it doesn’t get much better than that my friends.

The subsequent scenes, in which Mildred is picked up from the opulent mansion she apparently shares with her adult daughter and informed that her husband(!) has been murdered, are equally great. The limbo-like inertia of the police squad-room - where thick-necked cops sit around, smoking, eating sandwiches or desultorily typing up their nightly reports as Mildred is forced to sit amongst them in her Cossack finery, awaiting the attention of the investigating officer, is brilliantly conveyed. (“Would you like a paper, lady?” some toad-like brute asks her, as if the wife of a murder victim might want to catch up on the sports pages or something.)

As she is eventually ushered into the strangely inviting environs of the interrogation room (incongruously low-lit, as if by firelight) and disconcerted by the smooth, logical and ingratiating tone taken by the detective within (“even his more courteous, somewhat friendlier types gave one pause for concern,” begins the IMDB bio of actor Moroni Elson), we know we’re sliding headlong toward extended flashback territory, as Mildred is coerced into recounting her sorry tale.

Even as we cross that one off our “Film Noir signifiers” bingo card however, first-time viewers expecting to file this one alongside Double Indemnity and ‘The Big Sleep’ are liable to be taken aback by the extent to which the film takes a stylistic handbrake turn as soon as the fairy-dust of noir glamour disappears in the flash of a back-in-time dissolve, leaving us adrift in the flat, sit-com greyscale of the (then novel) surroundings of pre-fab suburbia, where a somewhat fresher-faced Mildred Pierce exchanges her furs for apron and oven gloves, thoroughly immersed in the drudgery of domestic routine.

III. 

When I first watched ‘Mildred Pierce’, around twenty years ago(!) at this point, I didn’t get it. I was in the process of discovering Film Noir for the first time via a Film Studies module I was taking in college, and as such, my expectations of the “genre” chiefly revolved around gun-toting gangsters, scummy tenement apartments, crumpled fedoras and weary P.I.s striking matches on their unshaven jaws.

By failing to deliver on these hallowed signifiers of the hard-boiled idiom, ‘Mildred..’ fell flat for my younger, dumber self. I mean, not only does it feature only a single murder, which we see in the opening minute, but it then has the audacity to follow the day-to-day travails of somebody’s freakin’ mother - and like, who’s got time for that, right?!

Returning to the film as a respectable, wage-earning adult however, greater life experience and (I would like to think) more mature tastes have allowed me to engage far more deeply with the tale being told during the - entirely noir-free - central hour of their movie’s run-time.

Admittedly, I’ve not been through a painful divorce, raised a hateful harridan of a daughter or gone into the restaurant business during the interim, but what can I say? I suppose I can now at least relate to such quintessentially ‘grown-up’ concerns, meaning that, when Mildred’s extended confession begins, I no longer tune out.

At 114 minutes, ‘Mildred Pierce’ is a long film for its era, and it packs a hell of a lot into that run-time. Full of ostensibly repetitious character encounters, melodramatic contrivances and mountains of detail concerning the titular heroine’s property deals, legal transactions and business plans, this material could, in clumsier hands, have become a colossal bore. Indeed, one suspects that it is only the prestige Curtiz was still enjoying a few years downstream from the success of ‘Casablanca’ that prevented Warner Bros from scything through the screenplay in no uncertain terms.

But, thank god, they didn’t. And at the risk of stating the obvious here, ‘Mildred Pierce’s final cut is a fast-moving, thoroughly engrossing, friction-free joy to sit through - an example of ‘40s Hollywood artistry raised to its absolute zenith.

Always a gifted director, Curtiz brings both a steady hand and an unparalleled mastery of visual storytelling to proceedings, whilst MacDougall’s writing is, as mentioned, exceptional. Haller, Grot, editor David Weisbart and composer Max Steiner are also all at the top of their game, and in front of the camera, Crawford is - of course - magnificent, whilst the rest of cast is packed out with carefully chosen, lesser-known players who inhabit their roles just perfectly.

Basically - this crew could have made a film about the history of Battenberg cake and it would have been worth watching, so seeing them take on an inspired adaptation of a second tier James M. Cain novel is just dandy, thank you very much.

IV. 

The nebulous concept of the ‘women’s picture’ represents a distinct category within studio era Hollywood filmmaking - one which, predictably enough, been largely overlooked by the male-dominated critical / Film Studies establishment.

Being just as in thrall to the whims of said establishment as anyone else, I’m not really sufficiently familiar with the form to judge how indicative ‘Mildred Pierce’ is of its overall conventions, but certainly one suspects that many (now largely forgotten) movies aimed at female audiences must surely have followed the same basic trajectory seen in the film’s central hour; a steadfast, hard working wife/mother overcomes the obstacles life throws at her, negotiates her relationships with men, fights her corner in assorted melodramatic conflicts and misunderstandings, and so forth.

The big difference of course is that, in the regular run of things, one supposes that these stories would most likely have ended with their heroine finding true (legally sanctioned) love, securing a bright future for herself and her children, etc etc…. which is where the shadow of our old friend ‘noir’ begins to creep in once again.

One of the masterstrokes of ‘Mildred Pierce’ is the complex characterisation of the three men who play a role in its heroine’s life. Though all of them are eventually found severely wanting on the scales of the film’s moral schema, they are all somewhat fascinating characters in their own right, and, crucially, none of them are portrayed as entirely irredeemable. This adds a note of moral ambiguity to proceedings which takes us beyond the realm of boilerplate melodrama, even as Mildred is weeping into her oven gloves in her suburban kitchen as first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) walks out on her.

Openly conducting an affair with the oft-mentioned “Mrs Beiderhoff”, Bert Pierce is initially depicted as a cruel and gloomy sad-sack who refuses to acknowledge his own culpability for the failure of the couple’s marriage. But as the film goes on, and the machinations of the plotting become more complex, he emerges as something of a paragon of plain-spoken honesty, offering Mildred his heartfelt apologies and best wishes when she proves him wrong by achieving success on her own terms, and attempting - in a characteristically vague sort of way - to protect her from the sharks who are circling.

Significantly, Bert is also the only character in the movie who is not entirely fixated on making money. Unemployed when the flashback segment of the movie begins, he remains glum, dishevelled and content with with relatively lowly position in the economic hierarchy. Even after a brief bit of exposition informs us that he has eventually found work in (where else) the aerospace industry, he remains uninterested, it seems, in signing up to the crazed pursuit of the dollar which motivates the rest of the cast.

Framed more-or-less as Bert’s polar opposite meanwhile, the aforementioned Wally Fay is a ruthless opportunist, a loud-mouthed braggart and a shameless lecher who, as he repeatedly demonstrates, is willing to throw his business partners under a bus at a moment’s notice in pursuit of his own interests. But, despite all this, his fondness for Mildred seems genuine, he works hard to help make her business a success, and despite his boorish conduct, he never forces himself upon the female characters in the movie after they’ve rejected his overtly cartoonish advances.

Armoured against ethical doubts by the same spiel employed by carpet-baggers and capitalist ultras to this day (hey, it’s just good business, nothin’ personal, etc), against all the odds, we kind of end up liking the guy. There are even moments here when, fleetingly, Mildred and Wally seem to be operating as a pretty tight team - a kind of proto-power couple almost - until his roving eye for some amoral side deals inevitably gets the better of him.

Which just leaves the most fascinating gentleman of all, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Gifted with a name worthy of an Iberian dragon-slayer, this fellow has sometimes been likened by critics to a gender-reversed femme fatale (homme fatale?), but personally I’m not sure that glove really fits.

In stark contrast to the raw sexual magnetism generally assigned to yr average ‘femme fatale’ in fact, the root of Monte’s seductive charms remains rather elusive. With his receding hairline, cleft chin and skinny build, Scott leaves us with the impression that Joan Crawford could probably break him over her knee and send his remains wafting away on the ocean breeze, leaving him a far weaker, more compromised, figure than the ‘black widows’ who routinely preyed upon the protagonists of male-orientated noir.

Given that Beragon is also stony broke - and everyone in the movie seems to know it - it is presumably only his intangible aura of old world, aristocratic glamour which keeps a steady stream of debutantes and wealthy widows heading back to his heavily-mortgaged beach house. (Though the script is reluctant to address Beragon’s promiscuity directly, references to his notoriety in the ‘society pages’ and a running gag about the multiple bathing costumes he keeps on hand for his many ‘sisters’ make the point clearly enough.)

And, in good time, we get a first-hand taste of his talents too, as, thanks to Curtiz’s proven talent for handling romantic material, the scene in which Monte eventually gets Mildred alone in his ‘lair’ zings with more of a sense of inter-personal chemistry and genuine human warmth than the rest of the movie put together… even as bad news and piled up IOUs combine to douse their passion more or less immediately.

Between them, these three fatally-flawed suitors then add up to far more than mere shooting gallery ducks for Crawford’s world-beating super-woman to knock down, allowing the film to chart a surprisingly complex (if resolutely cynical) cross-section of the relationships between the sexes in the competitive, hot-house environment of post-war America. (2)

As Mildred’s loyal right-hand-woman Ida (brilliantly played by a scene-stealing Eve Arden) remarks at one point as the pair raise a lunch-time glass of bourbon, effectively cutting the crap and compressing a fair share of the complex machinations of the film’s plotting into a single sentence: “to the men we’ve loved… the stinkers”.

V. 

Though the relentless fixation on acquiring wealth which triggers the bulk of the conflict within the script could lead some to label ‘Mildred Pierce’ an ‘anti-capitalist’ film, several factors - not least the movie’s refusal to elevate Bert Pierce to a higher plain for his prioritising of emotional honesty over material gain - suggest that a slightly different moral dynamic is actually at work here.

If anything, the film functions primarily as a kind of unabashed celebration of the Protestant Work Ethic, promoting hard graft as the engine through which the put-upon proletariat can improve themselves and take revenge upon their social ‘betters’; a theme which I assume must go all the way back to Cain’s source novel, as such messages were often close to the writer’s heart, in spite of the nihilistic air which defines his best-known material.

Thus Mildred becomes an almost Christ-like figure for those who strive to better themselves and their families through hard work - an avatar perhaps for the overlooked female labour force brought to the fore during WWII - whilst the scenes demonstrating the success of her restaurant chain convey the sheer exhilaration of post-war American prosperity better than anything else in the era’s movies; a seething world of polished chromium, gleaming glass, imitation leather and bubbling grease, every inch of space filled by voluminous, big-spending customers whose gigantic automobiles idle outside, ready to send them roaring off to the next fashionable destination, amid the not-yet-polluted air of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Meanwhile, true evil within the film’s moral schema is reserved for those refined, Luciferian layabouts - as represented by the tag team of Monte Beragon and Mildred’s spoiled elder daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) - who scrounge their living off the hard work of others whilst mocking the honest toil which underpins their wasteful, dissolute lifestyles.

Stretching right back across the Atlantic and down through the annals of antiquity, this particular class-based dynamic can be traced through the whole deathless lineage of Europe’s debauched aristocracy, from the fall of Rome to the French and Russian revolutions, to the gout-addled, rotten borough squires of British popular fiction (an archetype splendidly lampooned by Charles Laughton in ‘Jamaica Inn’ (1939)), and, more pertinently, the related lineage of ‘Jane Eyre’-derived gothic heartthrobs who were busy menacing and abusing their pure, proletarian maidens in vast swathes of the celluloid which followed in the wake of that rather more celebrated Hitchcock/Du Maurier joint, 1940’s ‘Rebecca’. (3)

It is in in imitation of this legion of sub-Byronic cads - along with a touch perhaps of the aristocratic affectations of the silent era Hollywood elite - that Monte Beragon was presumably moulded, and in this sense, ‘Mildred Pierce’ becomes less of an anti-capitalist parable and more of an all-American class war diatribe, in which evil and corruption ultimately derive, not from capital itself, but from snobbery and laziness, from refined manners, bohemian self-indulgence and any remaining hint of old world entitlement.

A very different prospect from the kind of native-born, inherently American, corruption routinely unpacked in the literary noir of Chandler and Hammett… but, having said that, the rot lurking at the heart of the American dream can certainly be seen elsewhere in the film - if not in the figure of the foreign-coded Monte, then certainly in that of his protégé, and the movie’s ultimate villain, Veda.

VI. 

If I suggested above that man trouble accounts for a fair share of Mildred’s woes, it is the remainder which ends up being both far more significant and far more uncomfortable, ultimately swinging the picture firmly in the direction of Film Noir - and for better or for worse, it’s a very female pile o’ trouble indeed.

In general, I try not to make a habit of hurling misogynist insults at the screen whilst watching films, but if you can get through the first half of ‘Mildred Pierce’ without yelling “you BITCH” in the general direction of Ann Blyth’s Veda, well, your olde world manners must be more refined than my own, let’s put it that way.

Arguably the most memorable character in a film packed full of memorable characters, Veda functions as a magnet for audience hatred right from the outset. A full-on, ‘Bad Seed’-level monster whilst playing younger in her earlier scenes, the toxic snobbery and insincerity which seems to have taken possession of her - traits not obviously inherited from either of her parents - seems so inexplicable, it almost pushes the movie in the direction of horror. (Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine that the producers of the aforementioned 1956 film didn’t have Veda in mind to some extent.)

Beyond mere vindictive, bad-kid nastiness though, there is something so perversely vile, so cruelly idiotic, about the idea of a child attacking her own mother for her perceived low class breeding (“..you never talk about your people, or where you came from, do you mother?”), that Crawford’s inchoate reaction to her daughter’s behaviour can’t help but mirror our own.

In a more conventional, more sentimental story, it would be easy to imagine Veda learning the error of her ways as she grows up, redeeming herself as time goes by and becoming less of a conceited, duplicitous cow as a result. But - thankfully - that’s not the film we’re watching here. The essence of ‘noir’ has sunk deep into the bones of ‘Mildred Pierce’.

And so, under the questionable tutelage of Monte Beragon and Wally Fay, the teenage Veda is soon a fully signed up apprentice femme fatale - a Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith on training wheels, complete with a side-gig as a night club bawler (clearly the money mummy spent on all those music lessons didn’t go to waste) and the future of at least one promising young man already crushed beneath her wheels.

There is a sense here that we’re supposed to see Mildred’s parenting - spoiling her daughter with gifts and luxuries whilst failing to put the time aside to actually build a relationship with her - as being somehow responsible for Veda’s beastly conduct, but to be honest, this intended bromide on child-raising is one element of the screenplay which never quite lands, which is perhaps for the best.

Better by far I think to just see Veda as some Satanic anomaly - a force of nature capable of bringing down her indomitable mother the way no mere man ever could. And indeed, it is the warped, rather obsessional nature of this mother / daughter relationship which really steers the movie back toward darkest noir territory during its final act.

As has often been noted, once Veda has flown what’s left of the family coop, Mildred - perhaps still mourning the tragic loss of ‘good’ daughter Kay - dotes on her as if she were a lost lover rather than an errant daughter, going to what we in the audience recognise as absurd, self-destructive extremes to try to win back her tarnished “love”.

Things proceed to become outright queasy, as the sequences depicting the eventual reunion of mother and daughter are shot more like passionate love scenes than parent/child interactions. There is some freaky, co-dependant kind of shit going on between these two we realise, altogether too late, and the result is… pretty weird, to be honest, bringing the sense of intoxicating gothic perversity which has been lurking deep beneath the surface of his story gasping, finally to the surface.

In cultural / symbolic terms, the extent to which Veda dominates the action in ‘Mildred Pierce’s second half causes the film to sometimes plays more like a prequel / precursor to the full-blooded Film Noir tradition than a fully fledged example of it. Through no fault of her own (?), Joan Crawford’s paragon of hard-working American motherhood, pursuing the American dream for all it’s worth, has given birth to a witch the boys back in Salem never dreamed of, ready to scour the underbelly of her mother’s rotten dream, devouring its losers and rejects with a relentless cruelty.

As critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito joke in the discussion included as an extra on Criterion’s blu-ray and DVD editions of ‘Mildred Pierce’, you just know, when the cops lead Veda away to the cells at the film’s conclusion, that she’ll be running that damn prison in a couple of weeks.

And as soon as she gets out, well… she’s gonna be heading straight for the nearest Robert Mithum or Fred McMurray, and the whole terrible cycle begins a-new; evil slouching toward Malibu to be born.

------

(1) Although Ranald MacDougall takes the sole on-screen credit for ‘Mildred Pierce’s script, and I’ve assigned authorship to him in this post just to make everybody’s life a little easier, authorship of the screenplay is, as with most studio era movies, highly contested.

So - deep breath. First off, Warner Bros apparently commissioned no less than eight writers to produce treatments based on Cain’s novel (including an unused draft from William Faulkner), making it unlikely that everything except MacDougall’s effort went straight in the trash. Secondly, quoth IMDB trivia; “writer Catherine Turney [who wrote a number so Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis pictures at around this time] was credited on some release prints, but chose to have her name removed.” Thirdly, producer Jack Wald (who instigated the project) has taken credit for devising the opening sequence and the murder-based flashback structure. And finally, also from an anonymous posting on IMDB: “due to script problems, some of the film was improvised by the actors together with Michael Curtiz”! So in conclusion: who the hell knows who wrote this thing.

(I will at least say though that, if that last claim is to be believed, the cast must really have been improvising at the top of their game, because, as mentioned, the dialogue in ‘Mildred Pierce’ is consistently excellent, and seems (to my mind at least) to suggest the work of a single authorial voice.)

(2) As an aside, it’s interesting to note that, despite it being filmed whilst WWII was still being fought, the script for ‘Mildred Pierce’ does not address the war, or its potential effect on the lives of the characters, in any way whatsoever. Instead, the film seems to take place during the kind of exciting economic ‘boom’ period we’d retrospectively tend to associate with the recovery of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s - a fact apparently not lost on Warner Bros, who seem to have deliberately delayed the film’s release until October 1945, when the war was safely in the rear view mirror.

(3) Seriously, it seems like you couldn’t hurl a brick in ‘40s Hollywood without hitting a few of these ‘Rebecca’-type gothic romance movies. Just off the top of my head, you’ve got ‘Dragonwyck’ (1946), ‘Secret Beyond The Door’ (1947), ‘The Spiral Staircase’ (1946), ‘Jane Eyre’ (1943), ‘My Name is Julia Ross’ (1945), ‘Gone to Earth’ (1951)…. and no doubt many others which I’ve not bothered to watch, as I don’t particularly seek these things out.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Psyched Out Sci-fi:
Doorways in the Sand
by Roger Zelazny

(Star Books, 1978)

A quintessentially mind-blowing exemplar of ‘70s psychedelic SF artwork, the cover for this Star books edition of Roger Zelazny’s 1976 novel ‘Doorways in the Sand’ appears to combine imagery drawn from Indian and Chinese Buddhism, culturally non-specific monumental architecture and a bunch of stuff that looks as if it might have been found tattooed on the arm of a Hell’s Angel. The more I look at it, the more my head hurts, which is usually a good sign when it comes to this sort of thing.

I can’t for the life of me find an artist credit for this one online, but the style does look at least vaguely familiar, so if you’re able to put a name to it, comments are open below. [UPDATE: the artist has now been identified as the great Bob Haberfield - see comments.]

 My research however did inform me that, a) this artwork originally appeared on the W.H. Allen & Co first edition UK hardback of the preceding year, and b) my imperfectly preserved paperback is at least mildly collectible, if online prices are to be believed - so that’s nice. (It will certainly sit nicely on the shelf next to my prized Panther edition of Zelazny’s uber-classic Lord of Light, anyway.)

I wish I could report that the novel itself is as mind-blowing as its wrapping, but…. well… let’s just say that anyone drawn in by this artwork in fact is liable to be somewhat disappointed when ‘Doorways in the Sand’ kicks off not as an intergalactic, spiritual trip, but as a kind of gentle, collegiate farce.

A determinedly perpetual student, protagonist Fred Cassidy has exploited a clause in his late uncle’s will which promised to provide for his upkeep until the point of graduation, allowing him to spend over fifteen years enrolled at an unnamed American college (presumably modelled upon Zelazny’s alma mater Columbia), switching his programme of study with sufficient regularity to ensure he never obtains enough credits in a particular discipline to allow him to graduate.

In a further act of brazen eccentricity, Cassidy has also managed to obtain a medical exemption from the College, allowing him to freely indulge his compulsion for scaling tall buildings, Spiderman-style, without fear of censure. As the novel begins, Cassidy has been assigned a new personal tutor, who - effectively taking on the fist-shaking, “crusty old dean” role - is determined to put an end to his shenanigans by tricking him into finally meeting the criteria for graduation.

Amidst all this, we’re a few chapters into the novel before we realise we’re actually reading a near-future science fiction story, as Cassidy sits atop the steeple of the college chapel, sharing a bottle of highly prized vintage brandy with a similarly unconventional professor, celebrating his impending retirement. As their conversation turns to the implications of the human race’s recent contact with multiple alien civilisations, we are gradually clued in to the fact that the Earth has actually been allowed to begin the process of being accepted as a junior partner in a kind of inter-planetary United Nations-type organisation.

As part of the resulting ‘cultural exchange’ outlined in the back cover blurb above, Earth has been granted temporary custody of two priceless items which will go on to play prominent roles in the novel - firstly, the ‘Rhennius Machine’, a perplexing conveyor belt and tube-based device which functions to “..reverse, turn inside out, and incise objects” (don’t ask), and more significantly, the ‘Star Stone’, an impossibly ancient sculpted sphere discovered on a long dead world, the sole relic of some unknown, extinct civilisation.

As it transpires, a series of mishaps and misunderstandings have led to the Star Stone being employed as a paper-weight in Cassidy’s student pad (he and his roommate believed it to be a rejected replica crafted by a friend of theirs), and, following a wild party on the premises, it appears to have been lost without trace.

Thereafter, much of the novel basically becomes a kind of comic sci-fi riff on ‘The Maltese Falcon’, as various factions - alien and terrestrial, friendly and malevolent - pursue Cassidy, determined to extract from him the information they insist he holds regarding the stone’s whereabouts, using torture, persuasion, bribery, hypnosis and - in one of the novel’s more diverting passages - the brain-scarring “assault therapy” practiced by a sentient potted plant named Dr M’mrm’mlrr.

All of which may sound like a wild old time in the abstract, but, frustratingly, the book really doesn’t add up to much more than a near-200 page wild goose chase. Though Zelasny seems determined to begin each chapter with a descent into deconstructed poetic / dream imagery (which largely just proves an annoyance in this kind of plot-driven narrative), and skims across the surface of assorted philosophical / scientific notions and mythological allusions along the way, the whole exercise ultimately seems rather pointless.

Even if we just accept it as a big lark though, the book’s alleged charms still remain questionable. Though the comic tone and casual surrealism sees the story drifting toward the realm of Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams, Zelasny (on this occasion at least) fails to capture either the heartfelt profundity of the former or the actual funny-ness of the latter, leaving us to wonder once again why this titan in the field of high-minded science fantasy is wasting our time with sophomoric student puns, screwball chases and talking donkeys.

But, never mind. If digging into Zelasny’s back catalogue has taught me anything, it’s that (outside of his more trad heroic fantasy work at least), he always had something different going on - and that’s enough to keep me coming back for more, even if the results sometimes can't even touch the hem of the most distant shadow of his earlier / better-known work.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Best First Time Viewings: 2020.
(Part # 3 of 3)

Finally got there! This final instalment turned into a bit of an epic, Im afraid.

(Don’t forget to read parts # 1 and # 2 of this list here and here.)

15. The Car   
(Elliot Silverstein, 1977)

I put off watching this desert-set ‘Jaws’ variant for years, just because, well… it sounds really stupid. Well, more fool me it turns out, because having finally caught up with it last year, it proved an absolute delight (albeit, a really stupid one).

I’ve often declared in these pages in the past that the first rule of monster movies is that the ‘human story’ has to be just as engaging as the ‘monster story’, and it is in this regard that ‘The Car’ really shines. Indeed, the laidback ‘70s vibes which characterise this tale of eccentric cops, teachers and redneck assholes living their best lives in a remote Arizona desert outpost prove so rich and intoxicating, it’s difficult not to find oneself drawn, fascinated, into these characters’ strange day-to-day, to the extent that all that damned ‘killer car’ jive just seems to be getting in the way much of the time.

James Brolin! What a guy! A luxuriously-moustached single dad cop, ridin' to work on his chopper, sans helmet. I salute him. (Well, perhaps not so much his disregard for basic road safety, but y’know - movie.) Backing him up, a crack team of supporting players including R.G. Armstrong, Ronny Cox, John Marley and Kathleen Lloyd make for a suitably off kilter assemblage of humanity, but don't forget to crane yr neck and look behind ‘em, because boy, this movie is just SO beautifully shot. The Utah scenery (standing in for Arizona) is absolutely breathtaking, and DP Gerald Hirschfeld’s presentation of it is worth the entry price alone.

If, like me, you’re a devotee of the hardy “70s cops in the desert” aesthetic in fact, this one is an absolute must - right up there with ‘Electra-Glide in Blue’ and ‘Vanishing Point’, however distant it may otherwise seem in terms of genre, artistry and critical acumen.

Come to think of it, I suppose “demonic car” movies could actually claim a similar place in my affections to ‘Deliverance’-style backwoods survival thrillers. By which I mean that neither of these concepts really appeal to me at all on paper, yet the films which have emerged from these hyper-specific sub-sub-genres over the years have almost inevitably been really good. So, just as ‘Southern Comfort’, ‘Rituals’ and ‘Just Before Dawn’ all defy the odds by being absolutely fantastic movies, so we could say the same for ‘Duel’, ‘Christine’, and now... ‘The Car’! Perhaps we could throw in the Lance Henriksen segment from ‘Nightmares’ (1983 - see part # 1 of this list) as well, but don't want to push my luck too far. I liked it, at least. 

 

14. Cop 
(James B. Harris, 1988)

Would you believe me if I tell you that, when a bi-annual viewing of John Carpenter’s ‘Vampires’ led my wife and I to undertake a brief James Woods binge earlier this year, we were entirely unaware of the actor’s more recent reinvention of himself as a hateful, far-right demagogue? Sad but true.

Was he always like this I wonder, or did he just flip his wig at some point? I’m not really familiar with the guy’s bio, but it seems a bit of a ‘chicken & egg’ situation. Did his unparalleled achievement in the field of playing rage-choked assholes in movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s push him toward a new career path… or was he just being himself the whole time?

Well, be that as it may - if you can find it in your heart to tune out more recent developments and return to the happy days when Mr Woods’ assholery was safely confined to the silver screen, 1988’s ‘Cop’ delivers pretty much everything you could hope for from a 1988 James Woods movie named ‘Cop’. Well, maybe not so much on the action side to be honest, but all that sweet, sweet procedural detail, multiple sleazy sub-plots and Woods fronting like an out of control bad-ass more than makes up for any perceived deficiencies in the ‘stuff blowing up’ department.

The scenes in which Woods totally alienates his wife by crazily yelling at her about how dark and evil the world is, and how he’s going to tell their daughter bedtime stories about pimps and drug-pushers rather than sugar-coatin’ it with all that fairy tale shit, are (inadvertently?) Nicholas Cage-level hilarious. Wisely, she immediately packs up and moves out, thus opening the way for our ‘hero’ to spend the rest of the movie sleazin’ around every female suspect/bystander who comes within groping distance, shifting most of the burden of actual police work onto the shoulders of the always great Charles Durning, who does especially fine work here as Woods’ much-put-upon partner.

In the second half of the film, Woods goes out of his element, tangling with the treacherous world of feminist poetry (didn't see that one coming), whilst the “no one believes there’s a serial killer on the loose except ME” type plotline morphs into something straight out of a high school slasher movie, climaxing with an extended mano-a-mano death match in a nocturnal gymnasium. Of course I won't spoil it all for you, but the abrupt “fuck you!”/fade-to-black ending is a golden cinema moment too.

I’m sure that the James Ellroy novel this film was ostensibly based on must be super dark and serious, but here we just get loads of riotous, macho cop movie fun, hitting up the clichés as if they were ducks at the shooting gallery, with a few truly strange, “eh, let's just go with it” diversions thrown in for good measure. Sitting perfectly alongside such shamelessly coked up ‘80s crime fare as Frankenheimer’s ’52 Pick Up’ or Ferrara’s ‘Fear City’, this is clearly a disreputable, under-appreciated classic of some strange kind. 

 

13. Gemidos de Placer [‘Cries of Pleasure’] 
(Jess Franco, 1982)

I have a half-written review of this one which I’ve been trying to find time to finish off for months at this point, so for now I’ll keep my powder dry, so to speak. But suffice to say - each time you think you’ve pretty much got the drop on Jess Franco’s labyrinthine filmography, something new will pop up and surprise you.

On the face of it for instance, I would never have expected that this Golden Films quickie, seemingly shot in a few days and briefly released to Spanish porno cinemas in 1982, would turn out to be one the director’s most disturbing and experimental excursions into the suffocating realm of darkest sex-horror, ironically shot against the blinding sunlight of a luxurious holiday villa, and executed - ala Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ - as a series of carefully rehearsed, fixed camera extended takes. Yet another extraordinary achievement from a filmmaker whose catalogue of impoverished masterpieces seems to grow more remarkable with each year that passes.

12. The Exterminator 
(James Glickenhaus, 1980)

Glickenhaus’s envelope-pushing urban vigilante epic is, like so many action films of its era, basically a Vietnam movie in civilian drag, delving yet again into the plight of a man turned into an emotionally disconnected killing machine by the good ol’ military-industrial complex.

More-so than Stallone’s sad-eyed, muscle-farmer in ‘First Blood’ though - or even William Devane’s implacable avenger in the more tonally comparable ‘Rolling Thunder’ for that matter - Robert Ginty’s nocturnal warrior in this one is a truly disturbing figure. Closer to a serial killer than any kind of folk hero, the empty, defeated demeanour he exhibits by day stands in stark contrast to the brutal and baroque methods he employs by night, as he cuts a bloody swathe through NYC’s criminal underclass.

With Ginty delivering a resolutely closed, inexpressive performance, we’re never allowed to get inside our ‘hero’s head here. He expresses himself solely through his actions, with the stomach-churning nature of the punishment he doles out sitting uneasily alongside the fact that his victims (a mob boss, a predatory paedophile etc) are so comprehensively loathsome that it’s difficult for even the most liberally-minded viewer to avoid feeling a certain thrill as they receive their just desserts.

A more morally ambiguous and intelligently conceived venture than most of the macho revenge fantasies which would follow in the ‘80s, ‘The Exterminator’ also spends a surprising amount of its screen-time unpacking the means by which crooked political and civic interests attempt to take advantage of Ginty’s reign of terror, building a sense of jaded, backroom cynicism which seem to belong more to the knotty complexities of the post-Watergate ‘70s than the coked up, comic book action movies of the Reagan era.

Similarly, the parallels drawn between Ginty and equally violent and obsessive fellow vet Christopher George, playing the detective on his trail, adds another interesting element to proceedings, reminding us that the same psychotic behaviour patterns which make Ginty a dangerous criminal outsider can just as easily be channelled into a respectable, state-sanctioned career by those able to grit their teeth, fake a grin and jump through the necessary hoops.

Not that any of this should distract us of course from the movie’s more down-to-earth virtues. With evocative location-shooting, brutal action choreography and confident direction, it stands as one of the best independent American genre movies of the grindhouse-to-VHS era, making for an unseemly, grit-choked pulp-art classic. 

 

11. Phantom Lady 
(Robert Siodmak, 1944)

I reviewed this unique film noir / Hitchcockian wrong man caper / proto-serial killer movie back in April.

Not one of my better pieces of writing I fear, but the basic strengths which I tried to highlight within - the exquisitely wrought noir-bordering-on-gothic atmospherics, hard-boiled nocturnal energy, implications of brutal violence and ragin’ backroom jazz sessions - were hopefully conveyed to some extent by my over-excited rambling.

10. Ladrones de Tumbas [‘Grave Robbers’] 
(Rubén Galindo Jr., 1989)

Boy, this Rubén Galindo Jr fellow sure knows how to make a good horror movie! His ‘Cemeterio del Terror’ (1985), which graced one of these lists a few years back, proved a pretty good time, but THIS one…. good grief. This delivers everything I could possibly ask of a beer-chugging Friday night horror movie, in vast quantities. In fact, my Fun-o-Meter short-circuited about thirty minutes in, and it’s not been quite the same since.

Going straight for the jugular, proceedings begin like a Paul Naschy movie on steroids, with an axe-wielding, hooded Satanist about to impregnate a naked lady bound in the centre of his blood-daubed pentagram. But wait! Suddenly, he is overpowered by the cowled monks of the Inquisition, who proceed to subject him to the tortures of the damned in their own cobweb-saturated crypt, eventually plunging his own cursed chopper into his chest, safe in the knowledge that this will keep his evil spirit at bay… until such a time as it is removed!

Cut to however many centuries later (I mean, who’s counting?), where we join a gang of denim and headband-clad ‘punks’ (or possibly metal fans - hard to tell), who have apparently been reduced to traipsing around derelict rural graveyards in search of “treasure”, using the intuition of a girl who purports to be psychic to lead them in the right direction. Naturally, she leads them straight to the Crypt of the Inquisitors, where of course a certain malevolent bag o’ bones is soon separated (temporarily) from his shiny battle-axe, precipitating the synth-rock soundtracked resurrection of an unstoppable zombie-Satanist killing machine! Oops.

With both a jeep-load of hair-spray happy female campers and, oddly, a pair of poncho-clad vaqueros (well, this is Mexico after all) drafted in to up the body-count, we’re soon knee-deep in severed limbs, split craniums and good ol’ arterial spray, as the revived warlock goes absolutely berzerk, seemingly determined to show up the era’s more popular franchise slasher icons for the rank amateurs they are.

Never fear though - earlier in the movie, we saw the reassuringly moustachioed local sheriff testing out his new Uzi 9mm, and a studious priest is meanwhile busy assembling his god-fearing congregation for a fiery, evil-banishing vigil of some kind, so we know our Satanic bad boy’s got a proper fight on his hands.

After a plot synopsis like that, it’s probably surplus to requirements to note that, contrary to many viewers’ preconceptions of ‘80s Mexican horror, ‘Ladrones de Tumbas’ also features breathless, action-packed pacing, excellent nocturnal photography, fine gothic throwback production design, rocking music and moderately awesome gore effects. Although Vinegar Syndrome’s blu-ray edition may have landed on my doorstep a bit too late for last year’s October horror marathon, if you find yourself casting around for the perfect movie for your 2021 Halloween party in a few months’ time, take my word for it - THIS IS THE ONE. 

 

 9. Terror Train 
(Roger Spottiswoode, 1980)

I have an unusual relationship with ‘80s slasher films I suppose, in that, unlike many horror fans, I didn’t grow up watching them. Lacking the kind of nostalgic warmth which keeps the sub-genre’s devotees endlessly returning to Friday the 13th part whatever year after year therefore, my tastes instead tend to gravitate toward the ones which are either, a) actually really good, or b) just really weird.

Delivering mightily on column (a) with just a little bit from column (b) to keep things fruity, ‘Terror Train’ is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best of the bunch, and sorely underrated by the fans. Although the plot - which concerns the mentally scarred victim of an especially cruel college prank returning from the nut-house to wreak vengeance upon his tormenters - is pure boilerplate, the talent of those marshalled for the purposes of telling it is considerable.

Director Roger Spottiswoode was going it alone here after a long stint as Sam Peckinpah’s editor of choice, whilst DP John Alcott had just completed the gruelling process of shooting ‘The Shining’ for Kubrick, having previous worked on ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (he also shot Gary Sherman’s incredible Vice Squad shortly after this). In front the camera meanwhile, Ben Johnson does great work as the obligatory adult authority figure - muttering and grumbling his way through his role as the guard on the college kids’ privately hired train as if he were making a movie in an entirely different genre ten years earlier - whilst the ever-reliable Jamie Lee Curtis heads up a surprisingly convincing cast of hard-partyin’ youngsters.

Trains hurtling through an icy wilderness usually make great settings for horror films (cf: ‘Horror Express’, Night Train Murders), and this one is no exception, with Spottiswoode and co wringing a maximum of Hitchcockian suspense from all those dark, empty corridors, claustrophobic sleeping compartments, insufficiently secure exterior doors and padlocked storage rooms.

And, on the ‘weirdness’ side of the equation meanwhile, the presence of a young David Copperfield as a smug stage musician no one remembers booking for the trip proves a total curveball, and the random new wave bands we briefly see rockin’ out in the train’s converted dining carriage are delightfully kooky.

Add a barrage of DePalma-worthy plot twists in the hysterical final act, and we’re really cookin’ with gas. In fact, if you’re looking for a second feature for Halloween 2021 after ‘Ladrones de Tumbas’, well, you won’t go far wrong with this one. So, all-aboard! Next stop… well, perhaps not ‘terror’ as such, but a damn good time, certainly.

8. I Start Counting 
(David Greene, 1969)

A key entry in the loose cycle of off-kilter, genre-adjacent ‘60s/’70s British thrillers which really should have seen release through the BFI’s Flipside imprint [Surprise! - late minute update Ed.], ‘I Start Counting’ is a film I’ve been aware of for a long time (I’ve even owned the reissued LP of Basil Kirchin’s soundtrack for several years), but, perhaps wisely, I managed to put off actually watching it until the new Vinegar Syndrome/Fun City blu-ray (yep, them again) reached these shores a few months back.

Suffice to say, I was floored. Expecting a low-key curio, I found myself hit with an accomplished, multi-faceted piece of work, eminently worthy of cult reverence and critical reappraisal. Nice when that happens, isn’t it?

As a unique amalgam of an innocence-to-experience coming of age tale, a kitchen-sink social drama and a fantasy-tinged serial killer thriller, there is an awful lot to unpack in ‘I Start Counting’. Far more than I really have time to get to grips with here in fact, but I’ll do what I can in a few short paragraphs.

The hints of stylistic innovation David Greene brought to his earlier horror film The Shuttered Room reach full flower here, as a wealth of dissociative, expressionistic techniques, unconventional framing choices and flowing, tidal editing rhythms draw us into the emotionally slippery, conceptually uncertain world of our teenage protagonist Wynne (a brilliant early performance from Jenny Agutter) as she hangs perilously on the verge of adulthood, occupying a headspace both drably prosaic and perilously unreal.

Charting a similar journey to that experienced by the protagonist of Jerzy Skolimowski’s thematically similar ‘Deep End’ (1970), Wynne’s confused striving toward self-determination and knowledge of the adult world is mirrored visually in the period-specific transition her suburban surroundings are undergoing, as the archaic, cosily-haunted ‘slum’ housing in which she grew up now finds itself scheduled for demolition, her family and friends relocated to the more sterile, modernist environs of a new-town Bracknell (which the adults we meet all assure us is better, although we never quite understand why).

For viewers of a certain age or inclination in fact, one of the most beguiling aspects of ‘I Start Counting’ will be its function as a kind of cultural time capsule. From the film’s opening crawl across Wynne’s bedroom - in which we see The Observer Pocket Book of Wild Flowers arrayed alongside other evocative teenage detritus, before the camera treats us to an unsettling still life of a Popeye alarm clock, a wall-mounted crucifix and a sinister, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ stuffed rabbit - the film’s casual yet highly specific accumulation of cultural ephemera and architectural eeriness proves a constant source of wonder.

(Of particular significance to me in this regard was a brief scene in which we visit some kind of high street record shop wherein customers can seemingly sample the latest discs by sticking their heads into a series of transparent plastic ‘sound domes’(?!). As if to demonstrate the extent to which the lysergic visions of the counter-culture had begun to permeate even the grey hinterlands of commuter-belt suburbia by the end of the ‘60s, we can clearly see someone in the background of one shot pulling a copy of my personal favourite weirdo-rock totem, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s thematically appropriate ‘A Child’s Guide to Good & Evil’ LP, from the racks! Far-out, man.) 

 

7. Dragged Across Concrete 
(S. Craig Zahler, 2018)

In the months since I went to bat for S. Craig Zahler’s third feature film back in May, it seems to have become mired even further in controversy, its production company involved in some kind of sex scandal (don't ask), its IMDB page reportedly turned into a full-scale warzone (I can’t bear to look), and… well, it also occurs to me that the scene in the first act, in which Mel Gibson kneeling on a Hispanic suspect’s neck for an excessive amount of time is essentially played for laughs, will reeeeeally not go over well with a lot of people in a post-George Floyd context. So much so in fact that I'm surprised the film hasn't been pulled from streaming services in panic.

The latter point at least is just an unfortunate accident of history (akin perhaps to Kurt Russell landing on top of the Twin Towers in ‘Escape from New York’), but regardless - I sincerely hope that all this palaver will not entirely destroy the reputation of what remains one of the best American films of recent years.

Like Peckinpah before him, Zahler seems to enjoy blowing the odd raspberry in the direction of liberal propriety (the stunt-casting of Gibson here is a good example), but the terrible irony of the controversy surrounding ‘Dragged..’ is that I genuinely do not think the director is trying to push any kind of right wing/reactionary agenda, in this or his earlier films.

On the contrary, he strikes me as one of the few voices in current American popular culture who seems determined to present people of all social demographics as three-dimensional human beings, whose problems and patterns of behaviour cannot be boiled down to an easy set of black and white moral judgements. If anything, ‘Dragged Across Concrete’, like most of the best hardboiled fiction, functions as a harrowing tour through an uncertain world of ethical greyscale, and is all the more compelling as a result. Like Peckinpah’s work before it, I would defy anyone to actually watch this film and tell me that the man who made it is a bigot or an idiot.

And… I could probably continue in this vein for some time to be honest, so I’ll leave it at that for moment. But again -- if the press around this film has put you off, I don’t blame you to be honest. I had my doubts about it too to be honest, but please, just watch the damn film and try to take it on its own terms before passing judgement. If you like crime movies, good acting and good storytelling (and have a strong stomach), I’m confident you won’t regret it.

6. Shanghai Express  
(Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

“..it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly..”

The pinnacle of Joseph von Sternberg’s flickering gospel of aestheticism, textural excess and yearning eroticism, ‘Shanghai Express’ remains an unforgettable visual experience, the better part of a century since it first slithered through a projector.

Though the stodgy yarn about Walter Oland’s inscrutable commie colonel harassing the cabal of spluttering, one-joke Westerners travelling aboard the shanghaied train of the title rumbles on incessantly, haemorrhaging screen-time all the while, it is ultimately of the small concern - the Great Director’s interest clearly lies elsewhere.

Aside from anything else, he’s busy creating a dense, Orientalist dreamworld of chaotic far-eastern railway stations on a Californian backlot, and doing so with such aplomb and maddening attention to detail that the results remain astounding to this day. But, even that remains a sideshow compared to his primary purpose - the full spectrum celluloid deification of his beloved Marlene.

Watch, stunned, as the feathered, man-eating bird-women of the film’s incendiary opening act (memorably described as “..a notorious coaster, a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast”) is transformed under the heat of von Sternberg’s arc lamps into a creature of sombre and ineffable spiritual beauty - the holy virgin of a renaissance master, with light and shade on loan from Rembrandt, any hint of camp, Hollywood materialism banished to the margins as the peanut gallery shuts up and says its prayers.

The holy virgins of the renaissance masters, however, were rarely found sharing train compartments with the ever-wonderful Anna May Wong, kicking up more Sapphic sparks than a warehouse full of heavily insured pornography as they rock saucy jazz records on their portable gramophone, the steam-powered rocket propelling them through the war-torn Chinese interior, bound for mystery and adventure.

Oh yeah, did I mention there’s also some English chap named Clive Brook in this movie? He’s alright, but he’s a bit of a grump and he takes up way too much space. He’s no Anna May Wong, that’s for sure, and whatever socially acceptable direction the boilerplate scripting may push or pull our characters in, we all know in our heart of hearts Shanghai Lilly would likely agree.

5. Cure 
(Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

Some directors, when making their existentially disturbing, high concept horror films, tend to hammer the point home with extremist aesthetics and vein-popping, headache-inducing audio-visual masochism. (Naming no names, but, is that ROBERT EGGERS I see scratching his way up the walls of that there abandoned well over yonder?)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa however takes a rather different approach. Though 1997’s ‘Cure’ does largely take place within a conventionally ‘creepy’, ‘X-files’/‘Jacob’s Ladder’-like landscape of decrepit or derelict municipal buildings, and dutifully delivers the requisite moments of shock and gore, for the most part the film is a more low key, contemplative experience - its naturalistic, unhurried staging of soft-spoken character exchanges are likened to “..a spooky Ozu” by Kim Newman in a piece included on Eureka’s blu-ray release - and is all the more effective as a result.

Framed as a kind of warped police procedural, as world-weary detective Yakusho Kôji tries to make sense of a series of seemingly unmotivated murders committed by unconnected individuals who, inexplicably, share a common, serial killer-like MO, the story draws us in as confidently as any desaturated Saturday night crime drama, but proceed to lead us far beyond comfortable, genre terrain, arriving at a place which feels both wholly original, and singularly unsettling. (Did you know, the practice of mesmerism and hypnosis was outlawed in Meiji era Japan, forcing its practitioners to operate as a kind of underground cult? No, me neither!)

Though ‘Cure’ won’t make you want to cry, vomit or tear your hair out whilst watching it (and, as noted, is all the better for it), it is in the dark of the night, a day or two after viewing, that the true terrors touched upon by Kurosawa’s film will begin to become evident. As plot points remain gnomic or ambiguous, the imagination is forced to drift further out in search of resolution, as the essential questions the film posits loom ever larger.

As ‘Cure’s desultory, amnesiac antagonist repeatedly asks his ‘victims’: who are you? And for that matter, who is the person sleeping next to you? What if, at some point, you are no longer you? What might you then be? And what might you do?

Sweet dreams everybody.

4. Wheels on Meals 
(Sammo Hung, 1984)

And, on completely the other end of the Asian cinema spectrum meanwhile…

Given that I tend to have a hard time with much of the humour in Hong Kong films, I’d tended to side-step the more overtly comedic of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s golden era Golden Harvest films, but… holy cow, this one is great.

A perfectly balanced mixture of actually-rather-charming slapstick capers, jaw-droppingly audacious action and stunt work, and just a touch of mystifying weirdness. (Why is Sammo working as a private eye in Barcelona? Why not!)

Right from the opening scene - in which Yuen Biao jumps from a second floor window and lands on his ass on the tarmac below, all in one take, with no padding - it’s clear that we’re dealing with some seriously high level buffoonery here. And indeed, all three stars are on absolutely top form here, casually ripping through feats of astounding physical dexterity in a zany, good-natured manner which feels entirely removed from the dreary concentration on toil and self-discipline which, up to this point, had conventionally defined the parameters of martial arts cinema.

Highlights are plentiful, but the heroes’ final act assault on the villain’s mansion stands out as a particularly unbeatable tour-de-force. As the three friends split up to take on different opponents, Sammo gets to indulge in some high stakes swashbuckling, whilst Yuen enjoys some combat trampolining across a series of alarmingly expensive looking leather sofas…. but of course, it is Jackie’s one-on-one showdown with world kickboxing champion Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez which really takes the cake.

Frequently, and justifiably, lauded as the greatest screen fight of all time, it is indeed quite the thing, as Jackie responds to Urquidez’s no-punches-pulled aggression by summoning up a level of resolve and brutality rarely seen in his on-screen roles, whilst Sammo’s visceral direction and inspired cutting wring every last drop of drama from this nigh-on super-human throwdown. Action cinema simply doesn't get any better.

Rocketing straight up the list of my favourite Jackie Chan movies, and indeed my list of favourite Sammo Hung movies (for my sins, I do not yet have a list of favourite Yuen Biao movies, but I’m working on it), ‘Wheel on Meals’ is an absolute hoot from start to finish. A perfect movie to cheer you up when you’re at a low ebb, you’ll hit the end credits roaring, laughing and feeling slightly confused… which is certainly all I could ask for, midway through the persistently troubling experience history will henceforth record as “2020”.

3. Parasite

(Bong Joon Ho, 2019)

Speaking of which - I realise it seems like a lifetime ago at this point, but remember back in February 2020, when the Academy actually turned around and gave all the Oscars to a really good movie? In retrospect, a sure sign of the forthcoming apocalypse.

As a thriller, ‘Parasite’s stand-out sequences feel as instantly memorable, carefully conceived, and - as I daresay we’ll discover over the next few years - as worthy of imitation and pastiche as those in ‘Psycho’ or ‘Les Diaboliques’ must have seemed to their original viewers six plus decades earlier. With immaculate visuals (somehow managing to feel expressionistic without ever departing from realism), pitch-perfect performances and ruthless, methodical pacing, it’s about as perfect an exemplar of the “everything meticulously pre-planned” school of filmmaking as you’re ever likely to encounter.

In terms of social commentary meanwhile, the film is equally finely balanced - challenging, even-handed and thought-provoking to the nth degree; a catalyst for post-screening debates which threaten to rage long into the night.

To return to what seems to be becoming a running theme on this list, what I most admired about Bong Joon Ho’s script I think, is that it refuses to take the easy way out by categorising any of its characters as heroes or villains. Drawing on a dramatic tradition which stretches at least as far back as Brecht, Ibsen and that whole mob, no individuals are really responsible for the dreadful events which transpire herein, and no one really ever does anything which strikes the viewer as too unreasonable, in view of their circumstances.

Rather, it is cruel and perverse socio-economic structures within which the characters are forced to dwell which create the conflict around which the story revolves, precipitating violence, chaos and bad karma wherever the seemingly unbridgeable tectonic plates of social inequality begin to grind together, horribly.

My other immediate response to ‘Parasite’ meanwhile was to wonder at the fact that, even as recently as twenty years ago, this story would have played as Orwellian science fiction - a portrayal of a world in which inter-personal communications technology has created a kind of inescapable, one-on-one surveillance culture, whilst divisions between social classes have meanwhile been stretched to a disgusting, almost feudal extreme.

To audiences in 2019/20 however, this is recognisable (albeit somewhat far-fetched) reality; a story whose essential elements you could scroll past on your daily newsfeed and not even blink. One generation’s dystopian SF has become the next one’s kitchen sink. Happened pretty fast, didn’t it. Where next, Columbus?

2. The Stunt Man
 
(Richard Rush, 1980)

Oh boy, what can I possibly say about this one? A multi-layered wonder of a film about filmmaking, this is the kind of sky-scrapingly over-achieving picture which I think it will take many repeat viewings over many years to really get to the bottom of. But, happily, it practically demands such return visits, simply by vestige of being so immeasurably entertaining that, time allowing, I could pretty much go straight back to the beginning after the end credits roll and start again, watching it in a kind of endless cycle to the exclusion of all other cultural input.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, ‘The Stunt Man’ ostensibly tells the tale of a PTSD-damaged Vietnam vet (Steve Railsback) who, on the lam as a result of his Rambo-esque misdeeds, stumbles onto the set of an epic World War One movie, and finds himself taken under the wing of the film’s highly strung, quasi-messianic director (Peter O’Toole), helping the production avoid legal difficulty by standing in for (and effectively assuming the identity of) the leading man’s inconveniently deceased stunt double.

From that simple(?) premise though, Rush’s film casually spins us down a rabbit hole of worlds within worlds, frames within frames, as Railsback’s character becomes a kind of feckless, emotionally decimated Faust, doggedly trying to figure out what kind of story he’s been catapulted into the middle of, as O’Toole - in a magisterially OTT, divinely unhinged performance - hovers perpetually above him, swooping about on his celestial crane-chair like some foppish Mephistopheles, shifting the sands beneath his protégé / pawn’s feet on an hourly basis. Possibly just for a lark, or possibly for something altogether more sinister, who knows?

Whether viewed as a metaphysical odyssey, a hilariously plausible take on the gonzo madness of movie-making (the whip-smart dialogue of Lawrence B. Marcus’s script, combined with the chaotic, Altman-esque naturalism of Rush’s staging, is an absolute joy throughout), or simply as a rip-roaring, mad-cap action picture (it delivers all the high octane thrills promised by the film’s title in spades), ‘The Stuntman’ is… well, I’m running out of synonyms for ‘extraordinary’ by this point in the evening to be honest.

As Chaos Theory apples fall symbolically from the sky and Dusty Springfield coos conspiratorially on the soundtrack, I suppose I’m duty-bound to point out, as per most contemporary reviews, that ‘The Stunt Man’ may not be a movie for everyone. Casual punters, the crits felt, may tend to find it a bit overwhelming, a bit mystifying. A, perhaps they did. As far as those of us who truly love movies, and who can embrace the lunacy which surrounds them, are concerned though - well I think we can all find ample room for Rush’s cracked masterpiece in our hearts, let’s put it that way.

1. Across 110th Street
 
(Barry Shear, 1972)

Though frequently categorised as a blaxploitation film - the success of Bobby Womack’s incredible theme song probably has a lot to so with that - ‘Across 110th Street’ can perhaps more usefully be considered as that rarest of things, an excellent, seriously intended crime movie whose characters happen to be predominantly black. Naturally, all of the additional rage and complication that inevitably brings to stories told in an American context ensues, but it is by no means the whole story.

It’s difficult to really put into words what I loved so much about this movie, but let’s just say that, whilst the standards I demand of crime movies tend to be pretty high, the feeling of exhilaration when everything demanded by the form comes together perfectly - when the writing is intelligent, the performances committed, the pacing relentless, the settings believable, the situations chaotic, the music rocking - is one of the greatest rewards popular culture has to offer.

Crime movies of the ‘70s tend to hit particularly hard in this regard, and ‘Across 110th Street’, according to my current calculations, sits in the very top tier of ‘70s American crime movies. Though mystifyingly underrated / little seen within the canon, for my money, every aspect of the movie delivered.

But enough hyperbole, let’s get down to cases. Plummy old Anthony Quinn seems like an odd casting choice for a grizzled Harlem police captain nearing retirement, but he sure puts some gumption into the role, which is appreciated. On one level, Quinn’s character is precisely the kind of corrupt, obsolescent monster that Yaphet Kotto (as the clean-cut, college educated cop being groomed as his replacement) takes him for. He uses racist language and casual violence to intimidate suspects, takes money from the local gang boss and gets riled up at the idea of a black officer taking over his turf. At the same time though, he’s also on first name terms with everyone out on the street, and lends his coat to a grieving widow without a second thought. Acting as much like a tough-love social worker as an authoritarian brute, he exhibits precisely the kind of human warmth and empathy that the ice cold Kotto notably lacks, making for an interesting, morally ambiguous, dynamic between our two leads.

Filmed for the most part on genuine Harlem locations, the film’s action is as brutal and intense as could be wished for, with a hair-raising ‘open streets / no permit’ feel that seems to take the chaotic, faux-vérité style established by William Friedkin and Larry Cohen and crank things up even further, particularly during the opening massacre and frenzied car chase which kick-starts the movie’s plot, as a gang of opportunistic black crooks take down a Mafia number racket and high-tail it across town in a state of blind panic.

Often playing like a Chester Himes novel, minus the self-decrepitating humour, the parallel thread exploring the plight of the robbers is, if anything, even more compelling than the stuff with the cops. Antonio Fargas, always a stand out in blaxploitation casts (cf: ‘Foxy Brown’, ‘Cleopatra Jones’), is as brilliant as ever here, rocking his usual sneering, rat-like pimp persona, but the crippling beating he suffers at the hands of the mob’s enforcers is truly harrowing - like a cold dose of reality thrown over the film’s remaining vestiges of pulp-y/self-parodic hi-jinks.

The movie’s real heart and soul though lies with Paul Benjamin as the leader of the heist gang; an ex-con and aspirant black radical, he rises above the rat-trap society has set for him with a doomed, stone-cold nobility, and his eloquent justifications of his violent actions are powerfully conveyed. Which, naturally enough, means it won't be much of a spoiler if I reveal that he’s destined to go down in a hail of bullets (the whole rooftop finale, incidentally, is another fantastic set-piece). 

I mean, what kind of self-respecting noir/gangster movie-derived saga could possibly offer an exit sign to a guy this straight up? Not one as good as ‘Across 110th Street’, that’s for damn sure.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

R.I.P.
Todd Stadtman.

Please excuse this brief interruption to our first-viewings countdown, but I need to take a moment to express my great sadness upon learning today (via tribute posts on Teleport City and TarsTarkas.net) that Todd Stadtman – proprietor of the Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill! and Lucha Diaries blogs, amongst many other things - passed away earlier this month.

Unlike the authors of the aforementioned posts, I can’t claim to have known Todd personally (my interactions with him have been limited merely to a few exchanges of blogger comments over the years), but his writing on film, and his relentless enthusiasm for shining a light on the stranger and more culturally distant corners of what we might broadly term ‘international pop cinema’, has always been a great inspiration to me – not to mention a veritable fount of knowledge when it comes to uncovering wondrous realms of world culture which, despite his noble efforts, remain terminally obscure bordering on actually-totally-forgotten to this day.

Oft was the time, back in the glory days of both 4DK! and his work for Teleport City, that I’d find myself overcoming the boredom of my day-job by covertly clicking across to a web browser to read, dumbfounded, about the latest extraordinary, subtitle-free discovery he’d dug up from the darkest VCD-trading corners of Taiwan, The Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico, Argentina or goodness only knows where else. Who knew, prior to Mr Stadtman’s evangelism, that pretty much the entire globe had once been busy cranking out rip-roaring, culturally specific entertainments full of garish colours, monsters, robots, disco dancing, high-kicking heroines, spies, cavemen, mini-submarines and guys in skeleton suits? Well, I’m sure some people did – but not I.

All these years later, I’ve only managed to watch the tiniest fraction of the stuff Todd wrote or spoke about online, but, speaking as someone who always enjoys learning about other nations primarily through their pop culture, I found his work hugely educational, as well as funny, concise, unpretentious and – crucially – always respectful of the people and cultures who created these amazing movies, retaining a tone of open-minded bewilderment which I’ll always take hands down over the kind of misplaced mockery and snark which tends to predominate whenever fragments of this kind of stuff find themselves washed up on English-speaking shores.

Todd’s 2013 book Funky Bollywood is a fantastic read (although I’ve STILL not managed to find a source through which to acquire most of the movies discussed within it), and his myriad podcasting endeavours have always been worth a listen, most particularly the long-defunct Infernal Brains series recorded in collaboration with the aforementioned Tars Tarkas. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every episode of this podcast will take you to a place on the cinematic map you never even knew existed, and their series of episodes on the work of Taiwanese action heroine/director/mysterious lost genius Pearl Cheung-Ling borders on the life-changing. (Well, it certainly changed my bank balance slightly at any rate, as I scoured the shadier corners of the internet trying to track down watchable copies of her films.) [Links: part one, part two.] 

Outside of film, even the briefest scan of Todd’s blog reveals that he was something of a renaissance man to put it mildly – a novelist, musician, songwriter and DJ, just for starters – and, having followed his endeavours from a distance for over a decade at this point, I would also venture to suggest that the picture which emerges from all of his work is that of a very nice man indeed.

Even in a many-steps-removed online kind of way, his presence will be greatly missed. My thoughts go out to his family and friends, who must miss him terribly. R.I.P.