Director: Thorold Dickinson
Interesting challenge this month at the ICM Forum, “smaller” Asian cinema, i.e. from Asian countries other than China, Japan and India. I’m not really sure how “smaller” is defined here, cos Hong Kong is OK for this challenge but I’d have thought its industry was pretty sizeable… same for South Korea, which is also eligible.Whatever. This means that, this month, I’m going to be looking at some areas of the world I don’t often (or ever) look at, including Israel, which is counted as part of “Asia” along with a few other places I’d consider mor “Middle East” than otherwise, but, again, whatever. It gave me a reason to finally scrub this, the first ever Israeli feature film, off the watchlist. (Tricky bastard to find a decent copy of, by the way; only today I found an actually fairly watchable version rather than the kind of shit one I’d had for a while.)
It almost feels like a cheat, though, calling it “Israeli”. I mean, it is, but the director was English, two of the main performers were Irish and American, and almost the entire film is in English. I somehow suspect it wasn’t aimed primarily at local audiences, though. The film acknowledges the controversial nature of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, but I can only remember one point where the possibility that the Arabs might have their own opinions about all these survivors of that other war that had recently finished suddenly getting their own country after Britain washed its hands of the lot of them. And that encounters ends with the Arab man pushing the American character (who’s rediscovered his Judaism while touring the area) into a swimming pool. Basically, Hill 24 is propaganda without much subtlety, and I have a feeling it was aimed more at international audiences than Israeli ones, trying to justify Israel’s battles for its own existence against those shifty Arabs who’ll push you into a swimming pool as soon as look at you. Told in the form of three flashbacks by three soldiers for the Israeli forces sent to capture a particular hill before the Arabs can claim it, two of them about how they came to be involved, and the third which, in its way, is the most interesting, cos it describes how the soldier had recently encountered an escaped Nazi now fighting for the Egyptians who begs for his life by asking him not to do what the Nazis did to the Jews. I know some people who are less friendly towards Israel than myself who would find that statement bitterly ironic. On the whole, it’s wartime melodrama whose interest is, I suspect, mainly historical (in 1955 I imagine it must’ve struck foreign audiences as somewhat exotic), and your enjoyment may depend on just how much propaganda you can handle.
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
At a time when Japanese cinema was just starting to gain worldwide renown, Kinugasa had a veritable international hit on his hands—award winner at Cannes and the Oscars among others—albeit one whose success apparently perplexed him; he was dissatisfied by the film owing to studio interference and what he thought was a weak script. But! Gate of Hell has one inarguable factor on its side, and that’s colour. Early 50s Eastmancolor, and oh my. If Eastman could never entirely compete with Technicolor (apart from convenience), it could certainly put up a worthy fight in the right hands.
Gate of Hell is set against a historical uprising, the Heiji rebellion of 1160 in which the dominant Taira clan were attacked by the Minamoto clan while the former’s leader was on a pilgrimage. In the course of this, our rather dubious “hero”, the provincial warrior Morito, emerges; he’s rather a rough diamond, and even his good deeds during the uprising are shadowed by association with his brother, who joined the other side. It’s his obsession with Lady Kesa, however, a lady-in-waiting who he rescues from the chaos at Kyoto, that really draws attention; not just for the idea of a rustic chap like him wanting to marry nobility like her, but also because, well, she’s already got a husband. Like that’s enough to stop him, of course…
All of this is played quite nicely (particularly by Kazuo Hasegawa as the initially heroic-seeming but really kind of creepy and unpleasant Morito), but I can kind of understand Kinugasa’s reservations about the script; it makes for nice semi-film noir business in a historical setting but there’s also not really enough of it to fill 90 minutes. Still, you can make an argument that the film is as much about its use of colour and design as it is the story (that Oscar it won for costuming was well-deserved), and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do tend to give a pass to films that are visually interesting if the story is a bit lacking. Gate of Hell is pretty much the sort of thing I mean by that.
Director: Howard Hawks
This was one I was looking forward to revisiting tonight, cos I recall having liked it a lot whenever I last saw it (early noughts). And, well, yeah, I… kind of didn’t like it so much tonight. I noted in my review of Silver Lode how High Noon… influenced that film, shall we say, and it influenced this one too, in the other direction; John Wayne (who apparently got offered the Will Kane role first but refused it because he supported the HUAC blacklist) and Howard Hawks were so disgruntled by it that they made this as a response… appalled by Zinnemann’s presentation of a sheriff begging for help and needing others to back him up, they instead went for a sheriff surrounded by so much help he can afford to refuse offers of it. It’s a classically “Hawks” macho set-up, which the DVD commentary compares to a family, Wayne the patriarch, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson as the “sons”, Walter Brennan as the somewhat eccentric “uncle” perhaps… and, of course, Angie Dickinson as the somewhat token female who is, in her own way, as manly as the actual men. (The bromance is still more interesting than the romance.) Yet on this rewatch, I was kind of surprised by how relatively little happens in the 135 minutes Rio Bravo craps on for, which is possibly an odd thing to say given how many subplots it has, but it’s kind of light on action for the most part… and that was a bit of a problem for me, cos when you consider the actual narrative situation—sheriff has a local rancher locked up for murdering someone, the latter’s rather wealthy brother hires assorted scum to blockade the town and menace the sheriff so he can’t get out of the place—I was a bit surprised by how little tension it generated. The whole thing just felt plodding, although the commentary notes the slow pace is actually usually considered one of its selling points, letting Hawks have time to digress and build character relationships. And, yeah, he does that… I just felt he could’ve done it more tightly and at rather less length. Disappointed.
Director: Nicholas Ray
I’ve seen this called “the screen’s great kinky western”, which I suppose goes to show how loose a meaning the word “kinky” has for some people… anyway, I haven’t seen this in a lot of years either, but this time I do know many, i.e. 20, cos it was back in 1995 when I saw it as part of my uni studies, in a class on film genres; this was shown as an example of the western. I didn’t get the appeal of it then and I don’t get it much more now either. This review by Ivan Shreve goes into the McCarthy-era political undercurrents in some detail (speculating that star Sterling Hayden, who had been a HUAC informer, was probably cast as a “commie” character for ironic reasons), which are no doubt there if you want to see them, but there’s a rather more overt class war at work in the story, which is, basically, about a bunch of NIMBYs living in terror of the railroad coming through their area and bringing (shudder) other people to their town. Saloon keeper Vienna (Joan Crawford) is just the advance guard of this wave of foreign muck from the East… and her association with a band of outlaws is enough for some of the locals to demand she be hanged with them. This is the dispute into which Hayden’s title character wanders, and, well, yeah, I still don’t feel it. Rivalry and climactic shootout between two women who are more manly than some of the men in the film, sublimated (homo?-)sexual frustration, yeah, whatever. It’s kind of interesting that Crawford and her opposite number Mercedes McCambridge hated each other so much that it kind of spills into the film (and out of it; apparently Crawford did her best to sabotage McCambridge’s career in later years); unfortunately, the apparently equal loathing Hayden had for Crawford kind of kills the chemistry the two are supposed to have, which is a bit more fatal to the film. I don’t get it. Maybe I find the melodrama a bit much. Maybe I just find McCambridge too much (I think she hams it up something awful). Whatever, I know earlier American critics hated it (the French loved it, of course) but generally the critical pendulum has swung the other way since then, and clearly those people who think it’s one of the great films now are seeing something in it that is frankly invisible to me; I can’t call it actually bad as such, it’s too well made for that, but something about it just leaves me completely cold. And 110 minutes of it is far too much.
Director: Allan Dwan
This film seems to cop many comparisons to High Noon, and I suppose some of them are fair; that film was a kind of allegory of McCarthyist Hollywood, and so is this one (rather less subtle about it, too, with the villain actually being called McCarty). There is, however, a fairly crucial distinction between the two: Gary Cooper’s sheriff in High Noon just has to deal with the impending threat of the killer coming after him and the moral cowardice of his fellow townsfolk, but John Payne’s relative newcomer, Ballard, has to face a threat that’s already there in town, and the townsfolk become an active part of that threat as the film progresses. Basically, it’s a small Western town, it’s the fourth of July, Ballard is getting married, and the festivities are kind of interrupted by the arrival of a US Marshall and his deputies, who’ve come to town with a warrant for Ballard’s arrest on a charge of murder. The dead man just so happens to be the Marshall’s brother, too. Now, we may guess there’s something not entirely right about this situation—and it’s not really spoiling anything to say that this proves to be the case—but the good people of Silver Lode are, evidently, a bit more impressed by McCarty’s authority (however “borrowed”), and the existing suspicions some have about Ballard—a recent arrival with an unknown past—gradually become amplified by McCarty’s allegations until the mob turns on Ballard when it looks like he’s killed the sheriff… and his situation is complicated somewhat by him having actually killed McCarty’s brother and actually being the gunslinger they fear he is. Dwan doesn’t use the “real-time” narrative method of High Noon, but he does a pretty splendid job of building the tension up; as I noted, Ballard has rather more to face than Will Kane does, and the ending of Silver Lode is rather more overtly angry than that of its putative model. Unfortunately I haven’t seen High Noon in more years than I can count (should remedy that), so I can’t say which of the two I prefer. Taking Silver Lode on its own terms, therefore, I enjoyed it greatly.
Director: Budd Boetticher
An IMDB reviewer observes that the Italian title of this film was “Tree of Revenge” and says they prefer it to the original. Which is understandable, given that it makes a lot more sense than the original; Randolph Scott doesn’t exactly “ride lonesome” at any point but there is a tree and there is revenge to be had… Anyway, not having been much of a western watcher, I’ve pretty much missed out on Scott’s career, and I gather this is from the period that’s since come to be considered his high point, i.e. the “Ranown” pictures made near the end of that career. In it, he basically plays the upright character he seems to have mostly played, although I felt there was a curious ambiguity to him here… basically here he’s a bounty hunter who captures outlaw Billy John, who’s got a death sentence hanging over him, but Scott doesn’t really want him, he wants his brother Frank who he knows will come after him. However, no plan as simple as this can come off without some complication, which in this case happens to be a couple of other crooks who want Billy for their own purposes… Now, the 1001 Movies book reckons this one is distinguished from the other “Ranown” productions by the “optimism” of the ending, which is an interesting perspective, I suppose; Scott’s character is the good guy, yes, but there’s something purely functional, for want of a better word, about his relationship with Billy John, he really has no use for him beyond drawing Frank after him and quite clearly puts no particular value on his life beyond that. There really is something kind of grim about it in its own way. Ride Lonesome is also a film that’s as much about the landscapes in which it plays out, those landscapes being rendered in spectacular Cinemascope by cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. Beautifully executed in pretty much every way, and the mere 73 minutes that it runs just proves what I’ve said before about the narrative economy of older films like this…
Director: Howard W. Koch
So the other day I watched Hammer’s last Frankenstein film. As such, by way of contrast, here’s Boris Karloff’s last Frankenstein film… Hilariously, the producer of the film changed the title from Frankenstein 1960 because they thought audiences would find the idea that an independent scientist could access an atomic power source for his own use by 1960 risible and that 1970 would seem much more feasible for that sort of thing; one can only assume the audience was meant to find the idea of Frankenstein using that power source to create a monster the very stuff of gritty, realistic drama. Anyway, for the first time here we have Karloff as Frankenstein rather than (or, technically, as well as) the monster; he’s the last of his line, and he needs the aforementioned atomic thing to continue his work, and to get it he’s rather reluctantly allowing a TV crew to make a film about his ancestor Richard (?) von Frankenstein, the original creator of the monster. It’s vexing, but the money is useful, and the crew might be good for spare parts too… Wm. Everson reckons there were basically three kinds of Karloff film, ones he took seriously, ones he didn’t take seriously but put in an effort anyway, and ones he essentially just turned up to collect a pay cheque; he specifically cites this film as an example of the last case, but I think that’s a bit unfair… I presume he was about as unhappy at having to make this film as his character was, but I think he does at least make an effort (what a great voice he had, and how well he uses it here), which is far more than can be said for any of the other performers. What it does have apart from Karloff (and a small change mandated by the Production Code people, who objected to the sound of Frankenstein’s body-disposal machine and ordered the effect to be replaced with the sound of a flushing toilet) is pretty good Cinemascope visuals and sets, some of which were borrowed from another film, with the producer also borrowing the cameraman from that film on the grounds that he’d know how to shoot it properly. Ploddingly ponderous and ho-hum otherwise; amazing to think that director Koch—who also made the last Andy Hardy film the same year as this—would go on in the next few decades to be a producer on things like The Manchurian Candidate and The Odd Couple, not to mention several Academy Awards nights…
Director: Leslie Norman (& Joseph Losey?)
So, Hammer had a hit with their big-screen version of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass Experiment, and decided a follow-up was in order. Trouble hit, however, when Kneale refused to let Hammer use his character, so the chastened studio had to buy the rights to his second Quatermass serial and refit their own script as something else. As such, Brian Donlevy’s Bernard Quatermass, rocket man, became Dean Jagger’s Adam Royston, atomic man. Unfortunately, the film’s troubles didn’t stop there: original director Joseph Losey left the film, reportedly because of “illness” but in reality (apparently) because Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted communist sympathiser. Or maybe he just walked off the film because he hated it, as did his replacement Leslie Norman, who seems to have been such an arse towards everyone that Hammer didn’t hire him again until 1968, whereupon Michael Carreras quickly replaced him on The Lost Continent. Perhaps amazingly, none of this really seems to come through in the finished film, which is a solid bit of ruthlessly efficient second-feature craftsmanship on the order of Hammer’s first two Quatermass films (wonder why they didn’t just assign Val Guest to this one as well? Might’ve saved some of that trouble). As ever, Hammer were operating on minimal resources, but for once we can see how minimal; the film’s Wiki entry notes that American producer Sol Lesser stumped up $30,000, or half the film’s budget, and that basically went to Dean Jagger, so a bit of quick maths tells you how cheap the thing REALLY was. And admittedly there are times when it kind of shows, some of the effects are a bit wobbly, but for the most part the film works within those limited means (and it didn’t have to cope with period setting trappings like Hammer’s later colour gothics), the net result being a terrific bit of Saturday afternoon viewing, spoiled only by someone’s incomprehensible decision to have the music drown out the dialogue in certain scenes… Parenthetically, interesting to see not only future Monty Python director Ian MacNaughton in a small role, but also young Frazer Hines, whose Doctor Who co-star Patrick Troughton I also recently saw in the course of this month’s horror viewing (in Phantom). I will note young Frazer’s put-on Scottish accent improved a fair bit in the ten years between this film and the start of his tenure on Who…
Director: Terence Fisher
Ah, how nice to finally have an anamorphic edition of this film, not to mention a high-definition one (even if I could’ve lived without the tarantula being in higher resolution, obviously), and how pleasant to revisit it tonight. The novel seems to be widely regarded as peak Sherlock Holmes, and Hammer’s film version of it was certainly one of their finer hours, not to mention markedly more faithful to that novel than their takes on Frankenstein and Dracula were… still fiddled with somewhat but the broad outlines at least are a lot closer to the source than their versions of Shelley and Stoker. And it was, obviously, the most logical Holmes adventure for a studio like Hammer to take on; late Victorian gothic setting, ancestral curse, monstrous hound apparently from Hell… they couldn’t go far wrong with it. And even now, the decision to cast Christopher Lee as Sir Henry, i.e. the hero (or at least the good guy) rather than the villain, and the romantic lead at that, still seems kind of remarkable, counter-intuitive and yet perfectly successful because it’s so head-scratching. Peter Cushing’s Holmes doesn’t seem to have been appreciated by everyone at the time, but he obviously impressed the BBC well enough to give him the role again in 1968, though Andre Morell’s Watson seems to have been more widely praised. But really, it’s just a generally solid example of Hammer’s strengths; excellent cast, strong production values on a moderate budget, and well-deployed atmospherics. And, to be sure, some not entirely happy comic relief, but the good reverend is still much less aggravating than some of Universal’s mood lighteners. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have been a box office hit, and so an apparent series of Holmes films (another cue they were taking from the old Universal films, though I wonder if they would’ve been more faithful to the original stories) never went ahead. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing, though, as it left the 1959 Hound to stand by itself without having to trail a bunch of follow-ups that might not have been up to its fairly high standard…
Director: Henry Levin
Jules Verne has been a late discovery of mine; only this year have I started reading his books (though given how bad most of the old translations of his works seem to be, it’s probably a good thing I waited so long for better ones to emerge). But I have seen films of those books before, indeed this is now the second one I’ve actually reviewed on here… and I must admit to liking this rather more than the previous one. Much as the 1954 20,000 Leagues took liberties with the book, so did this film, although this time I’ve actually read the book and so the changes (added romantic interest, new characters including a duck) were rather more immediately obvious. Verne would, of course, have recognised the broad outline of his story—scientist goes on foolhardy expedition to the centre of the Earth with assistant, they experience assorted wonders—but I suspect he might’ve raised an eyebrow at some of the changes, which make the film a bit more of a conventional adventure thriller than the book is. One must assume 20th C. Fox felt the book had insufficient conflict or something. The primary conflict in the film, of course, is between the characters’ duelling accents; Hamburg-based professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel now become Edinburgh-based professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, no stranger to Verne on film of course) and his student Alec McEwan (Pat Boone—who, obviously, also had to be given a song to sing that’s not in the book either). Mason’s fine, though sounding more English than Scottish, but Boone is… wobbly and his accent sounds much more obviously (and not terribly well) put on. The narrative conflict, though, is ramped up by adding a new character, a descendant of the original explorer Lindenbrook is following who isn’t happy with these people entering “his” domain. On its own terms, though, it’s actually pretty good; it was an expensive film at the time but it looks it on-screen, especially once we go below the surface, with good use made of the Cinemascope screen. It’s perhaps even more quaint now than Verne’s book, but it’s still a pretty decent example of late classic Hollywood “big” filmmaking. Plus it’s not every 1950s Hollywood film that has one of the cast members eaten by one of the others…