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Hitchcock and Grant: Darkness Behind the Charm

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Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant brought out each other’s best attributes in their four collaborations from 1941 to 1959. Hitchcock was the only director who exposed the dark, brooding side of Grant’s suave image, with a sexual tension that somehow evaded the censors. Grant’s presence, in turn, lent a sophistication and elegance rarely seen in Hitchcock’s other works.

Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959) explored Hitchcock’s themes of concealment, degradation and emotional manipulation. By expanding Grant’s acting range, Hitchcock revealed a dark romanticism behind the charm — screwball humor on the edge of a precipice.

Undoubtedly, both men benefited from their partnership. However, imagine if neither had made Notorious and North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s reputation would have endured regardless, but for Grant, those films were essential. In fact, it was Hitchcock who lured Grant from an early retirement to make To Catch a Thief and, in the process, helped revive the screen actor’s career.

Hitchcock and Grant shared a common bond that became more evident with each successive film. They were lonely, insecure men who came from lower middle-class English backgrounds. Furthermore, both were somewhat fearful of women, perfectionistic in their working methods, and enthusiastic about black humor. These character traits helped provide the foundation of their professional relationship.

The element of danger in Cary Grant first emerged in Suspicion. Cut from the same stylistic cloth as Rebecca, Hitchcock referred to Suspicion as the “second English picture I made in Hollywood.” However, Hitchcock began shooting with an unfinished script, resulting in a troubled production and an uncertain dramatic tone.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

In this disappointing adaptation of Francis Iles’ novel Before the Fact, Hitchcock cast Grant against type as Johnnie — a reckless, irresponsible playboy who later marries the shy Lina (played by an ineffectual Joan Fontaine, who somehow won an Academy Award for her performance). Only after their marriage does the naive Lina discover that Johnnie is a habitual liar and spendthrift with no money of his own. Because of mounting circumstantial evidence, Lina suspects that her husband is a murderer.

At this point, the film deteriorates into an endless charade as Lina’s belief in Johnnie fluctuates between guilt and innocence. Lina’s psychological tug of war becomes ludicrous once it is revealed that Johnnie never was a murderer — thereby negating everything that has come before.

If Hitchcock and Grant had their way, Suspicion would have evolved into a disturbing thriller rather than a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, RKO had other ideas and altered the framework of Suspicion with the same callous insensitivity that marred Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

When interviewed by François Truffaut in 1962, Hitchcock expressed dissatisfaction with Suspicion and revealed his original ending: “Cary Grant [was] to bring [Joan Fontaine] a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and [she] has just finished a letter: ‘Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer.’ Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops in the letter.”

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The illuminated glass of milk.

Seen today, Suspicion is the weakest Hitchcock-Grant collaboration even without RKO’s interference. Grant’s portrayal lacks the polish and depth that would become evident in his remaining work with Hitchcock. Furthermore, there is an absence of sexual chemistry between the Grant and Fontaine characters. Hitchcock also sensed this lack of rapport and, in future films, made certain that Grant was paired with more romantically compatible costars.

The most intriguing development in Suspicion is Hitchcock’s expansion of Grant’s screen persona. During the film’s first half, Grant plays his scenes in a screwball-comedy manner that often is grating. However, in the second half, Hitchcock slows the tempo of Grant’s performance, thus revealing Johnnie’s sinister undertones. Johnnie emerges as a seductive and sociopathic menace not unlike Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt or Bruno in Strangers on a Train. If Grant (and the studios) had been more daring, he could have played the Joseph Cotten and Robert Walker roles.

Suspicion should be viewed as a blueprint for a more rewarding collaboration: Notorious. Apart from being one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, the film represents Grant’s strongest dramatic performance. His portrayal of Devlin remains so emotionally cold that it leaves no room for his traditional humor. Ben Hecht’s detailed screenplay also includes a self-revelatory comment by Devlin: “I’ve always been scared of women. I’ll get over it.”

Notorious: Grant's finest dramatic performance.

Notorious: Grant’s finest dramatic performance.

In Hitchcock’s cruelest and most disturbing romance, Devlin emerges as an unsympathetic sadist. The counterspy seduces and manipulates Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), an alcoholic nymphomaniac, into helping the U.S. government obtain secrets by marrying the Nazi spy Sebastian (Claude Rains), who actually loves her more than Devlin does.

With the casting of Bergman and Rains, the love triangle in Notorious is similar to Casablanca. However, in Hitchcock’s world, there is no stirring display of patriotism or sentimentality. One feels sorrow for Sebastian when Devlin cruelly locks the car door and drives off with Alicia, leaving Sebastian to face certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis. Ironically, the humanity of Sebastian makes him a far more sympathetic character than Devlin, who cares little about people, except for the secrets and sexual gratification he can extract from them.

Though Devlin saves Alicia from a poisonous fate, it doesn’t redeem his mean-spirited treatment of her. Even when Devlin tells Alicia that he was “a fat-headed guy full of pain,” it isn’t entirely convincing. Herein lies the brilliance of Hitchcock, who finally strips Grant of his protective charm.

A cruel romance.

A cruel romance.

Notorious should have been the start of a new dramatic phase in Grant’s career. Instead, he played it safe by starring in a succession of comedies from 1947 to 1953. With the exception of his intelligent performances in Richard Brooks’ Crisis and Joseph Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk, Grant avoided serious roles during that period. Much was lost in the process.

Hitchcock’s fortunes waned after the release of Notorious. The filmmaker would not have another major critical and commercial success until Strangers on a Train in 1951. By the time Hitchcock re-established his cinematic artistry, Grant had retired in 1953 after a string of box-office disappointments.

The retirement lasted two years. In the end, it was Hitchcock who convinced Cary Grant to return to filmmaking. The master of suspense gave the actor a script he couldn’t refuse . . . and some Hitchcockian words of encouragement: “There isn’t a thing wrong with you, old man, that a first-rate screenplay won’t cure.  You’d be perfectly splendid in the part. One last thing: Grace Kelly has agreed to play the girl and a good part of the picture will be shot on the Riviera.”

Grant signed on the dotted line and began work on To Catch a Thief (only his second Technicolor feature — the first being 1946′s Night and Day). Hitchcock considered the film a “lightweight story,” yet it remains an important work from one of his most prolific periods. The director’s renewed energy is evident in the vividness of Robert Burks’ cinematography and imaginative use of the newly developed VistaVision process.  Though not terribly suspenseful, To Catch a Thief ranks among Hitchcock’s most stylish and elegant achievements.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Of course, the film’s soufflé-like quality would have collapsed without Grant’s flawless performance. As retired cat burglar John Robie, Grant revitalizes his screen presence. He is not playing Robie so much as he is playing Cary Grant — a suave, debonair man who looks good and knows it. This relaxed self-confidence is exactly what Hitchcock wanted.

The Hitchcock-Grant films utilize sex as a form of seduction and manipulation. To Catch a Thief is notable for the bold eroticism of Francie (played by a stunningly cool Grace Kelly) and her aggressive carnal desire for Robie. The offbeat nature of their romance adds to the lasciviousness, especially when Francie suddenly kisses Robie in the hotel corridor — her libido churning away. As in Notorious, Hitchcock effectively films Grant from behind in this brief encounter, making him the center of attention by focusing on the magnetism the viewer cannot see. When Grant turns to the camera, the look of bemused satisfaction on his face remains priceless.

Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto credited To Catch a Thief for its “classic Freudian notion of sex as larcenous” — a theme the director further developed in Psycho and Marnie. Most apparent is Hitchcock’s equation of jewelry to women’s bosoms, especially during Robie’s foray at the gambling tables and the now-classic “fireworks” sequence. When Francie invites Robie to her hotel suite, he knows what she is after and vice versa: “Look — hold them. Diamonds! The only thing in the world you can’t resist.”

Sex as larceny in To Catch a Thief.

Sex as larceny.

For Hitchcock, the fireworks scene in To Catch a Thief represented the cinematic equivalent of sexual rapture. “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful,” he told Truffaut. “If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. Sex should not be advertised.”

Hitchcock’s fascination with the paradox between the inner fire and cool surface reached its apex in North by Northwest — his last collaboration with Grant.  In this legendary cross-country chase-thriller, both men were at their artistic zenith.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman crafted a story that he called “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” — incorporating various ideas and set pieces that Hitchcock never could fit into his previous films. Most important, the role of complacent ad executive Roger Thornhill was written specifically for Grant, who could combine fear and desperation with a light comedic touch. Without Grant, it’s unlikely Hitchcock would have made North by Northwest.

Once again, Hitchcock uses Grant’s charm in a dark and manipulative fashion. However, it is Thornhill who falls victim to a series of unpredictable, nasty surprises. North by Northwest emerges as Hitchcock’s belated revenge on the Grant persona.

The surreal Mount Rushmore climax.

Interestingly, the film has been described as an unofficial sequel to Notorious with its psychosexual relationships and espionage sacrifices. Unlike previous Hitchcock-Grant efforts, North by Northwest evolves into a travelogue of the absurd. Thornhill is mistaken for a man who doesn’t exist and spends most of the film trying to track down the elusive “George Kaplan.”

Nowhere is this surrealism more evident than during the Mount Rushmore climax, with its mind-boggling urgency leading to Thornhill’s moment of truth. The final seconds not only are a moral redemption for Thornhill in his rescue of double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) but also one of sexual fulfillment — emphasized in the suggestive closing shot. It is fitting that the final Hitchcock-Grant thriller ends happily.

With so much written about the Mount Rushmore and crop-duster chases, the auction sequence tends to get lost in the shuffle. This beautifully written set piece is tailor-made for Grant’s unique talents.

The auction scene works on several levels. First, there are elements of sexual blackmail and enslavement — another parallel to Notorious — emphasized in the tension between Thornhill, Eve and Van Damm (James Mason), with Eve emerging as the object of value. Also evident is the surprisingly mature love-hate relationship between Thornhill and Eve, who plays conflicting roles throughout the film. (Saint deserves recognition as Grant’s finest Hitchcockian costar — sophisticated and sensual, yet ice-cold and dangerous. Unlike Francie in To Catch a Thief, Eve is more subtle in her sexual desire.)

“I’ll bet you paid plenty for this little piece of sculpture. She’s worth every dollar.”

After Eve and Van Damm depart from the auction, Thornhill again must use his ingenuity and performing skills to extricate himself from yet another predicament (not unlike Robert Donat’s improvised political speech in The 39 Steps). When Thornhill begins his outlandish bidding, the scene turns into a rare display of “screwball suspense” — nonconformist humor with a menacing undercurrent that captures the essence of Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek thriller.

In retrospect, it was easy to see why North by Northwest became Cary Grant’s last film with Hitchcock. At 55, Grant managed to look younger than James Stewart in Vertigo, but knew his days as a leading man were coming to an end. By the time he made Stanley Donen’s pseudo-Hitchcock thriller Charade in 1963, Grant was unable to disguise his age — nearing 60, he looked too old as a romantic hero. When Grant turned down the lead in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, it was because he no longer could play “Cary Grant.” Unwilling to make the transition to character roles, Grant retired for good in 1966.

Though directors such as Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks helped unearth the full range of Grant’s comic talents, it was Hitchcock who discovered the darkness that lurked within the actor’s seemingly carefree and debonair persona. Only with Hitchcock could Grant afford to take risks. Hitchcock, in turn, transformed the elegant film star into a complex screen legend. From a director-actor standpoint, they were a perfect match.

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The Vision of Buster Keaton

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The inimitable Buster Keaton has been acknowledged by some cinema historians as the master of silent-film comedy — surpassing Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  When examining his creativity throughout the 1920s, Keaton was a groundbreaking filmmaker whose somber but determined vision produced an enduring body of work.

Keaton’s stoic persona defied mainstream cinema as he transcended silent comedy by venturing into more dramatic territory.  This progression is evident when viewing three Keaton-directed features in chronological order:  Seven Chances (1925), Battling Butler (1926) and The General (1926).  Each film is distinctive in its comedic tone and cinematic style, while showcasing Keaton’s evolution as an artist.

Seven Chances is an example of Keaton placing his own personal and stylistic imprint on material not specifically tailored for him.  In fact, the premise seems ideal for Harold Lloyd:  on a certain day, a stockbroker belatedly discovers he will inherit $7 million if he marries by 7 p.m. that evening, yet only has a few hours remaining.  Under Keaton’s direction, what could have been a traditional thrill comedy emerges as a surrealistic nightmare brought to life.  It also reveals the epic scope of his filmmaking.

Like many of his features, Seven Chances maintains a natural tempo that enhances the humor of its individual scenes, particularly during the various proposals and rejections that Keaton encounters on his way to the altar.  In the words of Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, the film begins “slower than other comedians and ends twice as fast.”

This deliberate, methodic pacing builds to one of the great climaxes in movie history, with hundreds of potential brides — and an avalanche of boulders — chasing Buster through the Southern California landscape.  Filmed entirely on location and utilizing expansive long shots, this 20-minute sequence is propelled by Keaton’s stunning athleticism and remarkable editing precision.

Ruthless romance in Seven Chances.

In a 1965 interview with British film critic John Gillett, Keaton described how he shot the spectacular chase: “When I’ve got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups.  So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling.  . . . Close-ups are too jarring on the screen and can stop an audience from laughing.”

Keaton seamlessly fuses his deadpan expressiveness with an expert command of the film medium.  In Seven Chances, he transforms a stage farce into a thought-provoking examination of ruthless romance in which deadly boulders are preferable to devouring women.  The film equates pain with redemption and reveals the seriousness of Keaton’s comic art.

The same can be said of Battling Butler, which was the closest Keaton ever came to making a dramatic film.  Though regarded by contemporary critics as one of his weaker efforts, Battling Butler was among Keaton’s personal favorites and made more money than any of his silent features.  The film also broke new ground in its directorial style and depth, thus paving the way for his masterpiece, The General.

Though a traditional Keaton comedy on the surface, Battling Butler has a subdued, gentle tone that eventually erupts into violent rage.  Buster plays foppish and pampered Alfred Butler, a millionaire’s son who falls in love with a country girl while camping in the mountains.  To gain acceptance from the girl’s family, he is willing to be mistaken for heavyweight boxer Battling Butler, who is training nearby.  The sadistic champ soon learns about the ruse and schemes to annihilate Alfred.

Rather than stage a humorous fight, director Keaton plays it straight with effective results.  Alfred receives a brutal beating in the champ’s dressing room as the girl watches.  The blows are painful.  Bloodied and humiliated, Alfred looks into the girl’s terrified eyes.  What follows is perhaps the most chilling of all Keaton transformations, as the weakling Alfred lashes out at the champ — knocking the boxer to the floor several times.  Alfred wins a personal victory and the girl’s love as he walks down the streets of New York wearing his top hat and boxing trunks.

A chilling Keaton transformation.

Despite the upbeat finish, Alfred’s abrupt change in personality lingers in the mind.  For the first time, Keaton “permitted comedy to give way to a greater urgency,” Walter Kerr observed in his 1975 critical study The Silent Clowns.  ”We have seen him be extraordinarily funny in a boxing ring earlier. Now, in the film’s closing reel, he suddenly seems no comedian at all.”

Keaton had the ability to step out of genre as an actor and filmmaker.  Battling Butler confirms this rare dramatic quality with its realistic fight sequence, which influenced Martin Scorsese when he directed Raging Bull (1980).  Like Keaton, Scorsese made certain his camera stayed in the ring. “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies was Buster Keaton,” he told biographer Marion Meade in 1995.

Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s co-writers, was so impressed by Battling Butler that he gave Keaton a copy of William Pittenger’s 1863 book The Great Locomotive Chase.  It became the inspiration for The General — Keaton’s greatest feature (with Bruckman credited as co-director) and a cinematic masterpiece.  More than 93 years since its initial release, the film endures as a truly unique work that continues to resonate through generations.

Historians and critics often overlook Keaton’s ambition as a filmmaker.  Though Chaplin shot most of The Gold Rush (1925) in the studio, 90 percent of The General was filmed on location in Oregon.  In his quest for perfection, Keaton told his crew, “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts.” The result, in many respects, is the definitive Civil War epic, with Dev Jennings and Bert Haines’ superb cinematography evoking the photographic naturalism of Mathew Brady.

An independent filmmaker during most of the 1920s, Keaton had all the Hollywood resources at his disposal to create a very personal work not unlike Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) — commercial considerations be damned.  In retrospect, The General reveals as much about Keaton as it does the historic subject matter.

Keaton’s masterpiece: The General.

Welles was a great admirer of Keaton and praised The General on the 1971 PBS series The Silent Years:  “I think it’s the Civil War movie. Nothing ever came near it, not only for beauty but for a feeling of authenticity. Yet this is a farce — a farce without Chaplinesque sentiment, but imbued with a real and very curious sort of dignity.  . . . It’s a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind.”

The General represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine, with the Civil War serving as a seriocomic backdrop in this larger-than-life escapade.  The film is an inventive chase through history while showcasing Keaton’s mastery of props and characterization.  “Think slow, act fast” was his modus operandi.

A recurring Keaton theme is the triumph of the outsider who relies on his own devices.  As engineer Johnnie Gray, Keaton overcomes elaborate obstacles in a world where the illogical appears logical.  He has the determination to fight terrible battles and prove his mettle to a society that initially rejects him.  Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, the emotionally detached Keaton has no time to feel sorry for himself — he must keep going.  Life has become an endless chase.

Inevitably, the chase must end.  The final scenes in The General represent those few opportunities where the Keaton persona stands still and reflects upon his accomplishments.  Johnnie Gray finds love, redemption and a military rank, but only after a grueling journey.  It seems that all Keaton characters must pay an emotional and physical price before they achieve success.

To realize his cinematic vision, Buster Keaton created an enigmatic and inventive universe that knew no bounds.  Through the tragicomic wisdom of Seven Chances, Battling Butler and The General, viewers may envision themselves in these surrealistic battles — running and fighting for their lives.  Such is the timeless poetry of Keaton, whose films move beyond the realm of slapstick comedy to reveal an expansive, darker portrait of American individualism.

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The West of Fritz Lang

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“I love westerns [because] they are based on a simple and essential ethical code,” Fritz Lang said in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”

Lang’s westerns are unique in cinema history.  The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952) offer rugged individualism that differs from the epic grandeur of John Ford and Howard Hawks, thereby paving the way for the 1950s psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  The Austrian-German director utilizes the genre to study the nature of revenge, corruption, redemption and loss — recurring themes throughout his 41-year career.

How did an influential filmmaker find a niche in westerns?  First of all, Lang was fascinated by the American West and understood its mythology. “The western is not only the history of this country, it is what the Saga of Nibelungen is for the European,” he explained in Peter Bogdanovich’s critical study Fritz Lang in America (1967). “The development of this country is unimaginable without the days of the Wild West.”

Lang also was intrigued by the American Indian culture and lived on a Navajo reservation for several weeks in 1935 while MGM kept him on hold and waited for his one-year contract with the studio to expire.  However, the director fought back and soon made Fury (1936), a disturbing study of mob rule and obsessive vengeance — social themes that would be explored in his westerns.

In 1940, Darryl Zanuck gave Lang the opportunity to make his first western for 20th Century-Fox, a sequel to director Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).  When asked why he allowed Lang to make a western, the producer responded, “Because he’ll see things we don’t.”

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Zanuck was correct in his assessment.  The Return of Frank James can be considered one of the first noir westerns. Lang’s attention to detail and atmosphere dominates this unusual tale of revenge.  The film has a look and feel unlike any western of the period as he elevates the genre to a higher visual and moral plane.

The Return of Frank James also marked a cinematic advance for Lang with its use of Technicolor and location photography, resulting in some magnificent shots of the High Sierras.  For a largely studio-bound filmmaker, this was literally a breath of fresh air.

Lang liked the Frank James script and had the freedom to make what few changes he deemed necessary.  However, due to the restrictive Production Code, the character of Frank James (reprised by Henry Fonda) was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and, in fact, did not kill a single individual.  Instead, the men who killed Jesse — Bob and Charlie Ford — die by other means.

At its core, The Return of Frank James examines the struggle of the individual (Frank) versus the system (the railroad company).  Lang opens his film with the last scene from Jesse James (an interesting parallel to the director’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga) as the traitorous Ford brothers shoot Jesse in the back.  After a noirish montage of newspaper headlines trumpeting Jesse’s death, Frank is found enjoying a farmer’s life of peace and anonymity.  He is a man reluctant to seek revenge.  “There ain’t gonna be no trouble,” he assures his youthful friend Clem (Jackie Cooper).

Frank (Henry Fonda) watches the re-enactment of his brother’s murder.

However, this relative calm proves short-lived when Frank learns that the governor of Missouri has pardoned the Fords.  Twisting the blade further, the brothers receive the reward money.  Since it was the railroad’s money that “put Jesse in his grave,” Frank (in a subtle form of revenge) decides to rob the company in order to finance his Ford expedition, which takes him to Denver.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Frank attends a theatrical production in which the “heroic” Ford brothers re-enact Jesse’s murder.  Sitting in a darkened balcony, Frank watches the melodrama unfold and rises to let his presence be known.  When the cowardly Fords see Frank, they run in terror.

What follows is a picturesque chase through the Sierras — a spectacular action sequence that reveals Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and his use of dead trees in the foreground. The chase ends in a gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), which results in Charlie falling to his death.  Lang’s omission of background music and dialogue strengthens the tension and excitement of this scene — nothing is heard but the sound of gunfire.

At the halfway mark, the story takes an unexpected turn when Frank abruptly ends his quest for Bob Ford (John Carradine) and returns to Liberty, Missouri, in order to save his servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) who was framed for murder by the railroad company.  The film unexpectedly evolves into a bitter and sometimes comical courtroom battle which ends in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers.  The Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense are startling; at one point, Frank’s attorney (who works as a newspaper editor) calls the railroad detective “Yankee scum.”

French poster.

French poster.

Once Frank is acquitted, he is free to track down Bob Ford.  However, an off-camera gunfight occurs in which Clem dies after shooting Ford.  What follows is the film’s most noirish scene as Frank confronts the mortally-wounded Ford in a darkened barn.  From a psychological perspective, Lang’s ominous and foreboding interior settings reveal Ford’s dying moments as those of a trapped animal.  When Frank finds Ford’s body, he has the satisfaction of seeing his brother avenged:  “That’s the other one, Jesse.”

The Return of Frank James ends optimistically with Frank returning to his Missouri farm, though Lang offers a provocative image in the final shot.  Riding out of town, Frank passes a tattered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind strips away the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades out.

Lang’s attention to historic and human details also play an integral role in Western Union — a fictitious account of the telegraph line’s evolution in the 1860s. Generally acknowledged as the first epic-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production is the most conventional of Lang’s Hollywood endeavors.  Regrettably, producer Zanuck decided that Lang should film Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay as written.  Had the director been allowed to make his proposed script changes, Western Union might have emerged as a darker, less formulaic western.

Despite the excessive comic relief and overemphasis on romance, Lang was able to incorporate some of his fatalistic vision into the proceedings, embodied by the character of Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) — a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company. Lang’s individual shadings add moments of realism to what could have been an overblown Cecil B. DeMille-type spectacle.

Robert Young, Fritz Lang and Randolph Scott during the filming of Western Union.

Fritz Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott.

Once again, Lang shot on location — utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon.  Compared to The Return of Frank James, the landscape of Western Union is more expansive with its canyon ranges and jagged desert rocks.  However, the interiors remain appropriately Langian.

Western Union is a standout among Lang’s westerns for its emphasis on technological progress and the coming of civilization.  In one scene, Shaw tells outlaw leader Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), “You can’t fight a thing as big and important as the Western Union.”  Symbolically, the telegraph’s arrival marks the beginning of the West’s demise.

Lang depicts Indian culture in a mostly sympathetic light.  Shaw takes a more pacifist approach towards the Indians than his romantic rival, Richard Blake (Robert Young), a naive Easterner who prefers killing the “savages.”  There is a great moment when Shaw knocks out Blake after the city slicker unnecessarily shoots an inebriated Indian.

Later in the film, Shaw and telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) receive the tribal chief’s permission to extend their wire through Indian territory. However, in Lang’s work, nothing is what it seems. After “Indians” attack the telegraph crew, it turns out they are members of Slade’s gang in disguise.  The outlaws call themselves “guerrillas for the Confederacy” — opportunists who exploit the Civil War by justifying their criminal acts.

Foreboding darkness in epic-scale Technicolor.

In the film’s most impressive action scene, Slade and his gang ignite a devastating forest fire that encircles the company camp.  It is an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivals the flood in Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s use of color provides a brilliant fusion of flames and shadow, which makes for a terrifying sequence.

For all its epic grandeur, the narrative force of Western Union lies in Shaw’s moral struggle. Predictably, Shaw finds himself in the middle of the Slade/Western Union conflict and, because of his past, does not fully side with the telegraph company.  Only after Creighton fires Shaw does the reformed outlaw reveal that Slade is his brother, thereby leading to the obligatory showdown between Shaw and Slade — a Cain and Abel parallel that leads to Shaw’s death and redemption.

As in The Return of Frank James, Lang’s directorial touches lend a naturalistic quality to the Shaw/Slade shootout. “There is one scene in which [Shaw] — who has had his hands burned in a forest fire and has them bandaged — goes to the traditional last fight,” Lang told Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America. “[Shaw] takes the bandages off his right hand, and stretches his fingers to see if they are usable for the draw. This is the kind of touch that makes people believe in things.”

Randolph Scott as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Randolph Scott’s breakthrough role as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Ironically, Western Union features the most expressionistic shot in Lang’s westerns.  In a stark composition, the viewer sees Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles standing sentinel in the background.  The inscription on the grave reveals that Shaw was buried as an employee of Western Union.  It is a tragic yet fitting conclusion.

Western Union was an influential film in its breakthrough casting of Randolph Scott.  As Vance Shaw, the actor revealed a darker edge that later would be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher.  Lang was the first filmmaker to recognize these brooding qualities in Scott (just as Alfred Hitchcock later would discover the same undertones in Cary Grant).

The commercial success of Western Union enabled Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that best suited him.  Another decade passed before he again directed a western — this time for RKO.  Rancho Notorious was Lang’s last western and, in many ways, his finest.  One of his bleakest works, the film also served as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, whose inimitable screen presence almost verged on self-parody.

Rancho Notorious is a perverse, stylized B-movie that distorts reality in its use of artificial backdrops and shadowy interiors.  Though largely a set-bound film, Lang reveals a painter’s eye in his moody, ominous shots of the sky and landscape.  (The exteriors may have been second-unit work, but the look is distinctively Langian.)  There also are expressionistic camera angles and grim close-ups that depict a claustrophobic, emotionally repressed environment.

A Langian dissolve.

Film scholar Jim Kitses observed in his influential 1969 book Horizons West that “strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry [into the genre] because they are somehow ‘not westerns.’  This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely . . . it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes.”

It is ironic that critical limitations were placed on the most expansive of film genres. With the exception of Western Union, none of Lang’s westerns are considered “traditional” works. Rancho Notorious defies rigid generalization and compares favorably to the artistry of director Anthony Mann. In Lang’s films, as well as those of Mann, fate deals the hero a nasty blow; however, with Lang, there is less emphasis on the hero’s struggle to resolve his own psychological malaise.

As in Mann’s work, there is a sense of loss that pervades Rancho Notorious, beginning with the murder of Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) fiancée and his endless, obsessive quest for her killers.  The film’s flashback sequence emphasizes Altar Keane’s (Dietrich) faded glamour and social standing, though her mystique remains intact.  Finally, there is outlaw Frenchy Fairmont’s (Mel Ferrer) loss when Altar takes the bullet meant for him.

The criminal hideout of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality that became more prevalent in 1950s westerns.  There is the symbolic inference of rape when Vern’s fiancée reluctantly opens the safe while Kinch menaces her; after her murder, the doctor tells Vern that “she wasn’t spared anything.”  During the flashback sequence, we see Altar and the other dance-hall girls participating in a “horse race” with the saloon customers.  Later in the film, Frenchy and Vern engage in a shooting competition that suggests phallic symbolism.   When Vern equates Altar’s bedroom to a morgue before the final gunfight, the sexual expressiveness is complete.

Lang also wreaks vengeance on Hollywood’s Production Code by making revenge an integral part of the story, even though Vern does not kill the men responsible for his fiancée’s murder. “The revenge theme was so dominant that it could not be diverted, and was allowable because virtually everybody wound up dead,” film historian William K. Everson wrote in his 1992 book The Hollywood Western. “It was surely no coincidence that a ballad sung during the credits concluded with the emphasized words ‘hate, murder and revenge’ just as the credit ‘Directed by Fritz Lang’ flashed on screen.”

Social status plays an ironic role in this film.  At one point, it is noted that Altar prefers cowpunchers to cattle barons.  In fact, she forms a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch not unlike the criminal organization in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series.  Along with her dominance and self-assurance, Altar speaks the film’s most philosophical line: “Time is stronger than a rope.”

Spanish herald.

Spanish herald.

There are two communities in Rancho Notorious: “Chuck-a-Luck” and the corrupt town of “Gunsight.”  Despite the town’s emphasis on upholding the law, the sheriff is in cahoots with the disgraced politicians (“Give me an outlaw to these thieves anytime,” Vern says) and later is voted out of office in the “Citizens vs. Law and Order” election.  Nevertheless, evil dominates, especially when the law is not carried out to its full extent.

What makes Rancho Notorious a pessimistic western is Lang’s belief that man remains a lost individual resigned to his own fate.  In the final analysis, the West of Fritz Lang represents an emotional wasteland as Vern and Frenchy ride off in mourning to face an uncertain future. “We all get taken sooner or later.”

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Technicolor Popeye

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By the time animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer lost their studio to Paramount Pictures in May 1941, the best Popeye entries were behind them. Paramount renamed the operation Famous Studios in 1942 (retaining most of the key Fleischer personnel) and forged ahead with its breadwinning cartoon star. However, Max and Dave’s creative spark was sorely missed.

Though the wartime adventures brought Popeye a welcome relief from Disney-style conformity, what became evident during the Fleischer/Famous transition was the domestic blandness that surrounded Elzie Segar’s spinach-eating hero — resulting in mediocre fare such as Happy Birthdaze (1943). Fortunately, the long-running series would enjoy an upswing in quality when Famous switched from black-and-white to Technicolor.

After decades of faded TV prints (Paramount sold its color Popeye library to Associated Artists Productions — better known as a.a.p. — for syndication in 1957), the Famous one-reelers have been gloriously resurrected in Warner Archive’s long-overdue Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1. Remastered from the original 35mm Technicolor negatives, the uncut 1943-45 cartoons on this Blu-ray look absolutely stunning. The colors leap off the screen and there are no a.a.p. logos in sight.

Of course, these Famous shorts did not represent Popeye’s first foray into Technicolor. That distinction belonged to Fleischer’s elaborate two-reel specials:  the Oscar-nominated Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939).

We're on Our Way to Rio

We’re on Our Way to Rio

Famous evoked the lavishness of the Fleischer two-reelers with its third color Popeye release, We’re on Our Way to Rio (1944). A full-fledged musical extravaganza, this eight-minute gem finds Popeye and Bluto at a Brazilian nightclub, where they encounter an Olive Oyl-inspired dancer singing the infectious “Samba Lele.” Determined to win over the Latin dancer by eliminating the romantic competition, Bluto falsely promotes Popeye as a samba champion. Thanks to a spinach-fueled transformation, Popeye becomes a skillful dancer and gives Bluto a nicely choreographed thrashing.

Everything clicks in We’re on Our Way to Rio — highlighted by the vibrant animation of Jim Tyer, Ben Solomon and William Henning, with a strong assist from composer Winston Sharples. It should be noted that Isadore Sparber and Seymour Kneitel, the credited directors of the 1943-45 Popeye entries, were supervising producers while head animators such as Tyer, Dave Tendlar and Graham Place served as de facto directors.

One of the few Famous Popeyes to hold its own with Fleischer’s vintage 1933-38 output, We’re on Our Way to Rio would have been a stellar achievement for any animation studio. However, Paramount was more supportive of George Pal’s acclaimed “Puppetoon” series, which earned the stop-motion pioneer a special Oscar in 1944. Though many Famous cartoons were submitted for consideration, the studio never received a single Academy Award nomination in its 25-year history. None of this mattered to Paramount, whose only concern was the bottom line — making certain Famous avoided the financial woes that were a contributing factor to the demise of Fleischer Studios.

She-Sick Sailors

She-Sick Sailors

Despite Paramount’s “business as usual” indifference, Famous produced some of its best work during this period. Among the remaining 13 shorts in this Blu-ray collection, She-Sick Sailors (1944), Shape Ahoy (1945) and Mess Production (1945) come the closest to matching the excellence of We’re on Our Way to Rio.

She-Sick Sailors is the classic Superman parody in which a clean-shaven Bluto impersonates the Man of Steel to impress Olive . . . and viciously mows down Popeye with a machine gun! (Naturally, the bullets are lodged in his spinach can.)  Co-written by Felix the Cat creator and legendary animator Otto Messmer, the cartoon remains great fun. Sammy Timberg’s rousing Superman theme from the 1941-43 Fleischer/Famous series makes a welcome return.

Vigorously directed by Tyer, Shape Ahoy offers a rare opportunity to see Popeye and Bluto as bosom buddies until they discover castaway Olive on their “men’s only” island. The short boasts a vivid Technicolor palette, several funny moments and a “blow me down” surprise ending. Unfortunately, this rambunctious energy would later vanish from the Famous Popeye series.

Shape Ahoy

Shape Ahoy

In terms of overall artistry, Mess Production could be mistaken for a genuine Fleischer cartoon. Set in a wartime steel factory, Popeye and Bluto vie for the attention of co-worker Olive with unexpected (and dangerous) consequences. The detailed animation and industrial backgrounds are truly impressive — further enhanced by Sharples’ memorable score.

The Anvil Chorus Girl is a significant Popeye release. Apart from being the first Famous remake of an earlier Fleischer short (Shoein‘ Hosses), this 1944 outing marked Jackson Beck’s debut as the voice of Bluto, with Mae Questel returning as Olive Oyl after a six-year absence.  The inimitable Jack Mercer continued to voice Popeye — a job he began in 1935 with King of the Mardi Gras. A talented and indispensable trio, Mercer, Beck and Questel also worked on the King Features TV cartoons in the early 1960s.

As retreads go, The Anvil Chorus Girl was one of the better efforts and a solid cartoon in its own right. However, most Famous Popeye remakes were comparable to 1945′s For Better or Nurse — an energetic but less amusing rehash of the Fleischers’ Hospitaliky (1937). Even worse, the Famous version adds a dreadful “twist” ending that negates the entire short.

Puppet Love

Puppet Love

Far superior is Puppet Love (1944), an inventive change of pace from the usual Popeye formula. Written by Joe Stultz and directed by Tyer, the results are truly bizarre as Bluto creates a life-size Popeye marionette to make his rival look bad during a rendezvous with Olive. Not exactly kid-friendly (Popeye gets ready for the big date by painting his toenails!), the cartoon remains a particular favorite among animation historians.

Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo (1944) and Tops in the Big Top (1945) add some new wrinkles to the Popeye-Olive-Bluto dynamic. Though both shorts are fitfully entertaining, the Famous artists take away some of the fun by making Bluto a more sadistic villain. This regrettable character development became part of the studio’s increasing reliance on mindless cruelty and violence.

The 4K restorations add new luster to inferior cartoons. Popeye’s first Technicolor one-reeler was the pleasant but unremarkable Her Honor the Mare (1943), which featured the return of his Disney-inspired nephews in one of their more tolerable outings. Two misguided entries — The Marry-Go-Round (1943) and Moving Aweigh (1944) — represent the final appearances of Popeye’s bespectacled sidekick Shorty, whose obnoxious presence was brought to a merciful end. In all three shorts, Popeye functions as an atypical comic foil, thereby weakening his heroic character.

Tops in the Big Top

Tops in the Big Top

Spinach Packin‘ Popeye (1944) boasts a great title card but emerges as a cost-saving “cheater” with a cop-out dream framework. For the first time, Famous used clips from the Sindbad and Ali Baba two-reelers without giving the Fleischers (and their artists) screen credit. A few years later, the studio began to recycle footage from its own cartoons — delivering an uninspired Popeye “cheater” on a near-annual basis.

By far the most notorious short is the blatantly racist Pop-Pie A La Mode (1945), which places the shipwrecked sailor at the mercy of hungry cannibals until the spinach arrives. Politically incorrect to the extreme, this cringeworthy effort wasn’t totally banned from television until the early 1990s. A beautiful transfer of a truly ugly cartoon.

The revitalized Popeye series maintained a high level of quality until Famous Studios fell into a formulaic rut in 1949. Apart from a rare winner such as How Green Is My Spinach (1950) and Tots of Fun (1952), the Famous product was no longer strong to the finish. Lower budgets resulted in more inferior remakes of classic Fleischer shorts. Nevertheless, Popeye remained a reliable moneymaker until 1957, when Paramount sold the Fleischer/Famous cartoons to a.a.p. — thus ending the immortal sailor’s 24-year movie career while becoming a TV phenomenon in the process.

Unlike the 1941-43 Popeye DVD set released in 2008, the Warner Blu-ray offers zero special features or commentary tracks. Though a bare-bones disc, the eye-popping restorations more than compensate for the lack of extras. Hopefully, Warner Archive will not wait 10 years to remaster the 1946-47 Famous Popeye cartoons.

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‘Yellow Submarine’ Turns 50

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Premiering at the London Pavilion on July 17, 1968, director George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine represented a landmark achievement in the history of animated feature films. Though influenced by the “Summer of Love” psychedelia of 1967, Yellow Submarine encompassed a rich tapestry of animation styles. Like the Beatles’ music, it has a timeless quality that defies categorization or emulation.

Yellow Submarine was a breakthrough effort. Not only did the film pave the way for more daring works such as Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1971) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976), but it also was the first full-length cartoon outside of Disney to become a resounding critical and commercial success. The popularity of Yellow Submarine was due, in part, to the Beatles’ association with the project. Nevertheless, it was the imagination of Dunning, art director Heinz Edelmann, producer/co-writer Al Brodax and numerous animators that propelled the film to remarkable visual heights.

The pre-credit sequence of Yellow Submarine establishes the film’s innovative style and serio-comic tone with its wistful, nostalgic depiction of Pepperland — utilizing vivid colors and offbeat character designs. This tranquil, distinctively British landscape is invaded by the grotesque Blue Meanies, who wish to rid the world of happiness, color and especially music. Interestingly, this plot element of Yellow Submarine was partly derived from the 1935 Ted Eshbaugh/Van Beuren short The Sunshine Makers in which cheerful dwarfs conquer grim-faced gremlins (who wear blue top hats much like the evil Apple Bonkers) with bottles of sunshine.

A pop culture history tour.

A magical pop-culture tour

In brief flashes, Yellow Submarine acknowledges its debt to the Golden Age of Animation, particularly the influential displays of psychedelia in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and The Three Caballeros (1944). Even the live-action cameo by the Beatles is somewhat reminiscent of Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series. Apart from animated cartoons, there are throwaway gags in the door-to-door sequence that evoke the art of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. Nevertheless, the film’s visual and comedic style remains individualistic.

A classic example of Yellow Submarine‘s dazzling uniqueness is the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence — an inspired fusion of animation and music that captures the song’s haunting melancholia. Set in a decaying pop-art version of Liverpool, England, this segment combines stunning graphic design with imaginative utilization of rotoscoping, cutouts and still photography. In this prototypical music video, the film draws its strength as a visual complement to one of the Beatles’ finest recordings. On its own merits, the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence is a mini-masterpiece.

Yellow Submarine has the quality of a surreal children’s story akin to Lewis Carroll on acid. When Old Fred searches for help, he encounters a rather glum Ringo, who rounds up his mates in what appears to be a museum — resulting in a fascinating, free-wheeling tour of popular culture. The remaining three Beatles are lavishly introduced as pop icons not unlike Frankenstein, King Kong and The Phantom. In the minds of Dunning and Edelmann, the Fab Four have become museum pieces (or, perhaps more cynically, merchandised “action figures”). It is apparent that the animators had a great time creating this Carroll-inspired segment, which emerges as the visual equivalent to a Beatle non sequitur.

The film makes inventive use of still photographs when the submarine departs Liverpool at warp speed and passes various British locales, such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Oxford and London. Using more than 200 color photos and accompanied by an instrumental excerpt from “A Day in the Life,” this brief travelogue lasts no more than 30 seconds, yet the overall effect is enthralling.

The Sea of Holes.

The Sea of Holes

With John, Paul, George and Ringo finally on board, Yellow Submarine sacrifices its thin plot for a surreal, psychedelic odyssey in which the group encounters an endless array of time warps, bizarre creatures and, of course, the highly intellectual “Boob” known as Jeremy — certainly one of the most unusual characters in animation history. Though rather lengthy, this “modyssey” never fails to astonish with its wide spectrum of color and unique creations (once seen, the “vacuum monster” never can be forgotten).

The most imaginative “modyssey” segment is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which combines brightly colored, psychedelic artwork with the imaginative rotoscoping of early movie musicals. The abstract color effects are reminiscent of Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1935), while some of the rotoscoped dancing parallels Norman McLaren’s work in Pas de deux (1967). The “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence is a brilliant example of animation’s spellbinding power.

After reaching Pepperland and using their music to defeat the Blue Meanies (during the “Sgt. Pepper” number, “the one and only Billy Shears” turns out to be John instead of Ringo!), the Fab Four offer a pacifist gesture to the villains. The result is a lavish “Summer of Love” finale highlighted by impressive polarization effects set to George Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much.” Happily, Yellow Submarine concludes with a brief appearance by the Beatles in live action. The group’s playful cameo (filmed at the last minute) ends the proceedings with a nudge and a wink.

Original color model cel.

Original color model cel

Yellow Submarine has its faults. Running 90 minutes, the film is overlong (even more so with the 1999 restoration of the “Hey Bulldog” number) and would have benefited from Walt Disney’s strong sense of story structure. Though memorably introduced in the pre-credit sequence, the Blue Meanies are essentially forgotten until the Beatles reach Pepperland; the midsection could have used a cutaway scene that re-established the colorful antagonists, thereby giving the film more urgency in its pacing.

Not all the musical segments work. One number that should have been cut is the uninspired “Only a Northern Song,” a weak Harrison composition that gives the animators virtually nothing to expand upon in terms of visual ideas. The sequence relies mostly on oscilloscope effects and psychedelic-style illustrations of the Beatles that emerge as open-ended boxes.

Regrettably, the Beatles did not provide voices to their animated counterparts, which might have added more energy and humor to the overall film.  Instead, the producers hired Liverpool actors (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten and Paul Angelis) who did a passable job emulating the group’s deadpan wit. However, with the noted exception of Ringo, there was a decided lack of individuality to the Beatle characterizations.

Despite these quibbles, one cannot dismiss Yellow Submarine‘s impact on contemporary animation. Like Fantasia, the film exposed viewers to a new and innovative vision of the medium while revealing limitless artistic potential. By daring to be different, Dunning and Edelmann succeeded in charting unexplored visual territory. A half-century after its release, Yellow Submarine endures as a seminal work of sight and sound.

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Image of protagonists from Chikamatsu's Love in Osaka

Tomu Uchida: The Mystery Master

Tomu Uchida (1898 – 1970) was one of Japan’s very greatest filmmakers, but it would not be at all surprising if many regular readers of this site – dedicated movie fans by definition – had never even heard his name. At the recently-concluded Uchida series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the most complete retrospective of the filmmaker ever mounted in the English-speaking world, I saw seventeen of his movies, and the experience was magical. The films, only two of which I had seen before, almost all generated enthusiastic applause from audiences at the MOMA screenings I attended.

I began to wonder if the situation with this director’s reputation might be analogous to the case of Jean-Pierre Melville, in the period prior to the re-release in New York, in the early 1980s, of his 1956 classic Bob le Flambeur, when American critics suddenly realized that Melville was a very important moviemaker. Could a similar belated discovery be awaiting Uchida? (And are you reading this, Criterion Collection?) In the meantime, his obscurity allows me to do the one thing I love most as a cinema buff: finding a new filmmaker to love and spreading the news to anyone who will listen.

We can speculate as to the reasons why Uchida is so little known in the West. His career can be divided very neatly into two halves: a pre-Pacific War period (1922-1940) and a postwar period (1955-1970), with an awkward 15-year gap between them, during which he continually tried but failed, due to the political turmoil of the time, to make even more films. Very little of his prewar work seems to have survived intact and during the postwar period, he was a contract director at Toei, the least prestigious of the six major film studios in the Japan of that era. So it’s not that surprising that Uchida’s films received virtually no international exposure during his lifetime.

I suspect, though, that a big reason why his work remains so infrequently seen outside of Japan is that he’s a very tough director to get a handle on, and would thus pose a major challenge for any distributor trying to market his work internationally. Throughout his career, his films swung between two stylistic poles: a sort of gritty yet Romantic realism and a highly theatrical expressionism. His impressive range as an artist thus derives not just from the wide variety of genres and subjects he tackled, but from extreme variations in tone between different works and, sometimes, within the same work. So defining Uchida’s cinema is problematic in a way that’s not true of, say, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi, artists with distinctive and consistent stylistic signatures

Uchida’s reputation – or lack of it – in Europe and America contrasts dramatically with the profound respect he enjoys among other moviemakers in his native land. Akira Kurosawa, in his list of his 100 favorite films of all time (he had limited himself to only one film per director), singled out Earth (Tsuchi, 1939) for particular praise, and implied that he might easily have selected the earlier Unending Advance (Kagirinaki zenshin, 1937) instead. The founders of the famous anime production company, Studio Ghibli, particularly producer Toshio Suzuki, grew up as great fans of the master: Suzuki says that the first film he saw as a child that impressed him was Uchida’s Swords in the Moonlight. These animators, while they were still employed at Toei in the 1960s, made a brief but unsuccessful attempt to collaborate with Uchida on an animated version of Japan’s oldest literary folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. (In the 21st Century, Studio Ghibli director Isao Takahata revived this aborted project, resulting in the wonderful recent anime, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013).)

Uchida was an exceptional film craftsman in an era in Japan in which very solid craftsmanship was almost a given. However, it has been maintained by some that, like many good Hollywood pros, Uchida was an impersonal artist, with no characteristic “personality.” This seems to me completely wrong. I can easily discern, across films of several decades, a number of recurring, indeed obsessive, themes, and his work feels to me very personal indeed. So my mission in this article is to trace these themes in the individual films, and to try to make sense of them in the larger context of his career.

Note: I could not see Uchida’s very rare Dotanba (1957) and, for reasons of space, I’ve decided to exclude from this article the following five Uchida films that I did see: A Hole of My Own Making (1955); The Koroda Affair (1956); The Horse Boy (1957) (a film so obscure it isn’t even listed in The Internet Movie Data Base); The Master Spearman (1960) (which contains a hilarious and subversive harakiri scene); and Uchida’s penultimate film, Hishakaku and Kiratsune: A Tale of Two Yakuza (1968). I am indebted for biographical information on Uchida to Craig Watts’ online article, published for Bright Lights Film Journal, which, despite its brevity, constitutes the most thorough summary of the filmmaker’s life and career I’ve yet read.

 

Police Officer
(
Keisatsukan, 1933)
Kinema Junpo ranking: none*

(*The Kinema Junpo critics’ awards, presented annually by the venerable Japanese cinema publication Kinema Junpo, have been given to Japanese productions from 1926 to the present. They were long considered the top film prizes in Japan. The Best Film (#1) award – which Uchida won twice (see below) – was considered particularly prestigious.)

Police Officer is the most dynamic and viscerally exciting Japanese film of the 1930s that I’ve ever seen. Though it takes a while longer than your typical Hollywood film of the period for its plot to come to a boil, it is as advanced technically and in character development as any late silent movie from Hollywood. (For complex reasons, Japan was much slower than the West in fully adopting sound pictures, and silent films continued to be released, though with decreasing frequency, throughout the 1930s.)

The story concerns the relationship between intelligent, sensitive Officer Itami and his former friend from his student days, Tetsuo, who now confront each other from opposite sides of the law. Kurosawa may very well have gotten script ideas for his classic detective film, Stray Dog (1949) from this picture: the sympathetic “villain” who is a kind of mirror image of the hero; the character of the protagonist’s beloved mentor, who is shot by a unknown criminal who then escapes; the alienating atmosphere of the big, anonymous city; the dramatic chase scene at the end.

Expressionistic elements are interestingly mixed with the overall gritty realism: a chain-link fence superimposed upon a map symbolizes the police “net” tightening on the criminal gang, and the final chase through the night city is thrillingly abstract, equal to anything Fritz Lang, say, was doing at the time. This work reveals a filmmaker who was already a major craftsman, though Uchida as yet lacks the emotional depth characteristic of an artist in the full sense.

 

Unending Advance
(
Kagirinaki Zenshin, 1937)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #1

Image for Tomu Uchida's Unending Advance (1937)

Hisako Takihana (left) and Yukiko Todoroki in Unending Advance/Kagirinaki zenshin. 1937. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. Courtesy National Film Center, Tokyo

This film left me feeling profoundly uncomfortable. An educated young man, Kato (Ureo Egawa), who should be well advanced in his career, plays with the neighborhood children all day because he can’t get a job, and cheerfully calls himself a bum. A young woman (Yukiko Todoroki), the daughter of the film’s middle-aged hero, salaryman Tokumaru (Isamu Kosugi), is mockingly called “95 sen” by the local kids because her daily wage is, indeed, only 95 sen – that is, just short of one yen: not a lot of money, even for 1937. For the new house he’s having built, Tokumaru is asked by the contractor to fork over 500 yen (that is, more than his daughter makes in a year) over and above the price originally agreed to, because the costs of building materials have gone up. Worst of all, Tokumaru, who’s been making plans on the assumption that he’ll keep working until age 65, has been hearing rumors at his company that the retirement age will soon be changed to 55… a milestone he’s already reached.

The reason I felt uncomfortable was because all this economic misery and corporate chicanery suggests 2016 America as much as Depression-era Japan. Without many changes, this could easily be adapted into a contemporary American movie… if Hollywood would ever have the guts to make a picture this downbeat about a modern “salaryman.” The film also made me uncomfortable in another sense, because it now exists only in very fragmentary form, and is thus impossible to evaluate properly.

The mostly intact first half of the tale (based on a story by Ozu), depicting the salaryman’s daily life and modest ambitions, reminded me of the easygoing charm of Yasujiro Shimazu’s earlier comedy, My Neighbor, Miss Yae (1934), but with a bitter undercurrent. There’s even a nice bit of office satire when the company president, at the office meeting, coldly announces that management is firing Tokumaru and his elderly co-worker “through our tears.”

But then the narrative takes an even darker turn. During a thunderstorm, Tokumaru collapses and loses consciousness. In his dreams, he’s not been fired at all, but promoted, and all his desires for himself and his family have come true. After he wakes up, Tokumaru believes the dream to be real, and when he goes to the office, he sits in his boss’ chair and invites all his co-workers out to lunch to celebrate. The situation becomes so embarrassing that his daughter has to be called to come to the restaurant and bring him home.

The film suffered a fate as demeaning as that of its protagonist. Re-released after the war, it was edited in such a way that the dream sequence was presented unironically as real, and the movie’s tragic ending was thus transformed into a happy one. (Think of Murnau’s The Last Laugh.) Uchida was, of course, furious at the changes, and refused afterwards to allow this mutilated version to be shown, though the original version, apparently, no longer exists. As a compromise, it was edited yet again, with printed intertitles describing the events of the original film’s deleted sections, and the director approved this version.

The pathos of Tokumaru’s mad delusion is thus completely excluded, except for one brief scene. Missing, too, is the climactic scene at the restaurant, in which the unemployed young man, Kato, gives a bizarre speech condemning the sick old man as a relic of a dying age. (This passage has only been preserved in the published screenplay.) Peter B. High, author of The Imperial Screen – the definitive book about the militarization of Japanese cinema during this troubled era – describes this monologue as exhibiting “the lurking spirit of Nazism.” This part, too, I would very much like to have seen and evaluated for its contemporary resonances… if the movie had not been, like its hero, broken.

 

Earth
(
Tsuchi, 1939)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #1

Image from Tomu Uchida's Earth (1939)

Isamu Kosugi (left) and Akiko Kazami in Earth/Tsuchi. 1939. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. Courtesy National Film Center, Tokyo

Earth has an origin story that is – as one of the series’ curators, Alexander Jacoby, remarked when he introduced the film at its MOMA screening –nearly too good to be true. Nikkatsu, the studio to which Uchida was under contract at the time, turned down his idea to adapt Takashi Nagatsuka’s 1913 novel. Thereafter, for a whole year, Uchida, while working on officially-sanctioned projects during the week, secretly filmed the unauthorized Earth on weekends, including location shooting in northern Japan. By the time Nikkatsu’s executives found out about the clandestine film, they couldn’t suppress it for fear of losing face with those studio employees who had worked on it, or indirectly assisted in its making. So the studio reluctantly released it and it became a big hit, later voted the best film of 1939 by critics.

Earth is, in fact, the ultimate expression of Uchida’s tendency toward hard realism, though even here, a certain Romantic stylization is apparent. It’s probably the darkest (literally) movie about farming I’ve ever seen: call it rural noir. The interior shots of the family’s house are very dim and hard to see, and many of the outdoor shots occur at dawn, dusk or night. The protagonist, Kanji (Isamu Kosugi), a prematurely aging tenant farmer, is also dark, as his face always seems to be covered in grime that he cannot wash off.

There is darkness in Kanji’s soul as well, as he harbors a bitter grudge towards his father-in-law. The old man, who lives with Kanji and his daughter (Akiko Kazami) and young son, is not only one more hungry mouth to feed, but is too proud and too senile to submit willingly to the authority of his distracted son-in-law. His increasingly unruly antics end with him accidentally burning down Kanji’s house. When Kanji refuses to forgive the old man for this blunder, he’s ostracized by the community (though if a relative of mine burned down my house, I’d be ticked off, too).

Some commentators have suggested that Kanji’s hostility towards the old man is actually misdirected rage, that he’s really angry at the owner of the land – or rather, the whole tenant-farming system – and taking it out on his father-in-law. This theory makes a lot of sense. Though seemingly benign (she accedes to every request Kanji makes), the landowner still takes most of his rice crop as rent, leaving him and his family with little.

It’s been written that Uchida’s narrative eliminates most of the original novel’s left-wing content, but I still sensed some strongly leftish sentiment. While Kanji’s hut is burning, for example, the villagers, at first trying to control the blaze, suddenly decide that the house is a lost cause and turn their attention to the landowner’s house, which is also in danger of burning down, as it is considered much more important. The scene says everything that need be said about the priorities of this still-feudal world.

Earth, despite its current fragmentary state (its last reel is missing), is a flawed masterpiece. Though not a classic on the order of Ray’s Pather Panchali – which it resembles – the film is “the summation of all that the Japanese cinema had come to represent in the 1930s,” according to film scholar Donald Richie, one of whose books first brought Tomu Uchida to my attention.

(Incidentally, this was the very first film appearance of the prolific actress Akiko Kazami, who died just a few months ago at age 95, following a 74-year career in cinema and television. The screening I attended was dedicated by Jacoby to her memory.)

 

A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji
(
Chiyari Fuji, 1955)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #8

Now considered a classic, A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji was Uchida’s successful comeback following his decade-and-a-half absence from Japan, during which he had attempted in vain to make films in Manchuria for the wartime Japanese government, and then in China, as a kind of atonement, had tried, again unsuccessfully, to make films for the Communists. (The frequently-claimed reason for his long absence – that he was held for years as a prisoner of war by the Chinese – appears to be untrue.) Three of Uchida’s old buddies, directors Hiroshi Shimizu, Daisuke Ito and Yasujiro Ozu, were all credited as “advisors” to the production. Though they may well have had a hand in the script, the final work reflects Uchida’s characteristic themes and obsessions.

A young, naïve, but intelligent samurai with a weakness for alcohol, Sakawa (Eijirō Kataoka), goes on a journey to deliver a precious family heirloom, accompanied by his loyal retainer, Genta (Daisuke Kato), and his equally loyal, middle-aged spear carrier, Genpachi (Chiezō Kataoka). Along the way, the trio encounters a collection of colorful period-film types, through which the narrative cleverly accumulates a number of thematic doubles. A poor man suspected by a government spy of being a notorious thief is doubled by the real thief, who is disguised as a traveling priest. The poor man’s daughter, sold many years ago into sexual slavery (and whom he is attempting to buy back), is doubled by a beautiful female traveler who is being similarly sold by her father in the present. Even Genpachi is doubled by a little orphan boy tagging along with him who, aspiring to be a spear-carrier himself when he grows up, imitates the man’s gestures and walk.

Bloody Spear may be the most famous example in Uchida’s work of one of his most distinctive themes: the sudden eruption of chaos into a seemingly ordered world. This obsession of Uchida’s, according to Craig Watts, was influenced, by, of all things, Maoist theory. “In the Mao interpretation Tomu studied,” Watts writes, “small contradictions or irrationalities build gradually upon one another to reveal larger contradictions, which in turn lead to an explosive climax or revolution in which contradictions are resolved.”

Up until the last ten minutes, the film plays like a period-film version of one of Heinosuke Gosho’s gentle tragicomedies of the 1950s, such as An Inn at Osaka (1954). But then, with little warning, the movie suddenly goes all Kurosawa. A bunch of snobbish samurai at a roadside tavern find Sakawa sharing a drink with Genta and, disgusted at this breach of samurai decorum, launch an epic battle against them and Genpachi. The skill with which Uchida manages this unexpected shift in tone, and the clarity and precision with which he stages the final battle, are hallmarks of the director’s style.

Uchida was one of Japan’s finest action directors. (Perhaps only Kurosawa, among his countrymen, was his superior in this regard.) Yet, through all the mayhem in his films, as in this case, he always sought to elucidate the mysteries of human behavior within the context of an oppressive society – including how a gentle man like Genpachi could, under certain circumstances, become a raging, murderous beast.

 

Twilight Saloon
(
Tasogare sakaba, 1955)
Kinema Junpo ranking: none

Image from Tomu Uchida's Twilight Saloon (1955)

Daisuke Kato (left), Jun Tatara and Eijiro Tono in Twilight Saloon. Japan. 1955. Directed by Tomu Uchida.

This movie, which depicts, on a single, stage-like set, a seedy Tokyo tavern on a particularly eventful night in the early postwar era, has sometimes been compared to Casablanca . I think a more useful comparison would be to Robert Altman’s classic 1970s films. (In 1955, when this movie was released, Altman was still in the Midwest, churning out industrial films.) Like those later American films, Uchida here is interested in depicting a lively but closed community, with its own folkways and taboos.

I think it’s significant that this picture was completely shut out of the Kinema Junpo critics’ list of the Top 30 films for its year. I suspect that reviewers at the time thought it a failure because it didn’t have a strong main plot, but this lack of a solid narrative center seems to me its most charming quality. The film moves swiftly and seemingly randomly from one patron’s story to another, easily mixing melodrama, low comedy and satire. This is, in fact, one of Uchida’s most amusing films. From the “radicals,” who are more interested in singing and drinking than making revolution, to the ex-militarist (Eijirō Tōno) reminiscing with his old service buddies about the past “glories” of the war, the film pokes fun at the whole political spectrum of its time.

The most respected character in the place is the bohemian artist Umeda, played by Uchida regular Isamu Kosugi, in his final film for the director. This character introduces into Uchida’s films the recurring theme of guilt. Remorseful for having placed his art at the service of the military dictatorship during the war (as was Uchida himself for doing the same thing), Umeda no longer paints. He’s content to drink, observe the passing show and, occasionally, lend a helping hand, and money, to a young person in trouble. There’s a delightful scene, which feels ad-libbed, in which Umeda, for the whole tavern’s amusement, performs Bizet’s Toreador Song, using a cape and another patron in the role of the bull.

The drawback for filmmakers who are “ahead of their time,” as Uchida was with this work, is that they usually get neither box-office success nor critical respect when they most need them. But now that we’ve finally caught up, so to speak, with Uchida, we can enjoy this minor classic.

 

Swords in the Moonlight, Parts I-III (a.k.a., Killer Pass)
(
Daibosatsu tōge I-III, 1957-1959)
Kinema Junpo ranking: none

Image from Tomu Uchida's Swords in the Moonlight, Part II (1958)

Chiezō Kataoka in Swords in the Moonlight Part 2/Daibosatsu toge: Dainibu. 1958. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. (C)TOEICOMPANY, LTD

If the concept of the “antihero” didn’t exist, it would have to be invented for the bizarre, deeply disturbing protagonist of this trilogy of films: the sociopathic samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue, feudal Japan’s equivalent of Dirty Harry. This figure was introduced in a series of 41 (yes, 41) novels composed over three decades by author Kaizan Nakazato, a pacifist who died in 1944 before he could complete the saga. (The best-known film adaptation of this material for Western viewers is Kihachi Okamoto’s highly-stylized 1966 version starring Tatsuya Nakadai as Ryunosuke, which was given the English title Sword of Doom.)

This nearly five-and-a-half-hour epic may well be Uchida’s best showcase for his genius as a storyteller. It really has to be, because the narrative is preposterous in concept and ridiculous in its details, including all manner of unlikely coincidences and impossible escapes. But these seeming faults matter as little as would the ludicrous libretto of a great opera, and for the same reason. Although the rambling plot is carefully set within a recognizable historical era – the mid-19th Century, when the Tokugawa Shogunate was disintegrating – it functions not as a credible reflection of “real life,” but as a kind of crucible within which the dark fates of its strangely compelling characters, male and female, are combined and fused.

The narrative begins with Ryunosuke meeting by chance a religious pilgrim at the Great Bodhisattva Pass (the meaning of the film’s original Japanese title). The old man is on his knees, praying, and the warrior, without warning, unsheathes his sword and kills him. This first inexplicable action leads inevitably to a series of actions resulting in a vast pileup of corpses.

It would seem an impossible task for any actor to make such a mindlessly violent figure believable, never mind sympathetic, yet somehow Chiezō Kataoka, under Uchida’s direction, accomplishes both. Even more strikingly, Kataoka makes no attempt at a naturalistic performance. He provides the character with a slow, deep, growling voice, more bestial than human. The overall effect (particularly after he is blinded, in the second and third parts of the saga) is to suggest a wounded animal that longs for the termination of its pain in death. The great critic Tadao Sato wrote that the Ryunosuke character is not about “evil,” but the Buddhist conception of life as suffering, and Kataoka powerfully embodies this idea, portraying a man intolerably burdened by his inability to feel normal human emotions. (He can experience guilt and remorse only in his nightmares and hallucinations.)

This theme is made even more explicit via the character of his antagonist, the young swordsman Hyoma (Kinnosuke Nakamura). The brother of a man whom Ryunosuke kills early in the story, Hyoma is obsessed with revenge until, near the end of the narrative, he transcends his rage and achieves a kind of Enlightenment. He no longer hates Ryunosuke; he now seeks to kill him solely to put him out of his earthly misery. This change of heart may raise a smile from Western viewers, since Hyoma’s objective remains the same: Ryunosuke’s death. But to Japanese audiences, the “why” is often more important than the “what,” and Uchida makes Hyoma’s moral redemption both believable and meaningful.

This is not the greatest trilogy in Japanese cinema. That would be Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken, 1959-1961), which, by contrast, presents us with a hero who feels too much. But Uchida’s expert command of this incredibly complicated story and its complex themes, as well as of his enormous cast, is very impressive.

 

The Outsiders
(
Mori to Mizuumi no Matsuri, 1958)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #23

Image from The Outsiders by Tomu Uchida (1958)

Kyoko Kagawa (center) in The Outsiders/Mori to mizuumi no matsuri. 1958. Japan. Directed by Tomu Uchida. (C)TOEI COMPANY, LTD

This film’s widescreen color location cinematography (by Shōei Nishikawa) is so dazzling that it’s difficult to believe that it was released only three years after A Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji, whose visual style harkens back to the 1930s. But though the onscreen landscapes (shot on location in the northern island of Hokkaido) that Uchida presents are a feast for the eye, other aspects of the movie – plot and character, for example – are a bit problematic.

As Jasper Sharp has pointed out in his Midnight Eye review, this film – dealing with the discrimination and cultural destruction faced by the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido – strongly recalls, in its themes and even in its visuals, the liberal “anti-Westerns” Hollywood released in the 1950s and 1960s. Surely an analogy can be made between the situation of the Ainu, whose culture and economy have been steamrollered by the encroaching Japanese since at least the 19th Century, and the continuing travails of Native Americans. But the movie also exemplifies many of the flaws of the Hollywood subgenre it evokes, particularly the difficulty it seems to have in getting inside the minds and hearts of the people it is championing. (My experience of the film wasn’t helped by a print with unidiomatic English subtitles, such as “I have an information for you.”) One could almost accuse the movie, ironically, of Orientalism in its success in detailing the colorful customs and folkways of the Ainu – Festival of Lakes and Forests is the literal translation of the film’s Japanese title – and its (relative) failure to sufficiently explore their inner lives.

The film, it should be noted in fairness, has many fine things to recommend it besides beautiful photography. These include an all-too-brief performance by lovely Ineko Arima as the divorced Ainu wife of a Japanese anthropologist (who “collected” her like a native artifact), and a dynamic Brandoesque turn by future superstar Ken Takakura, as a rebellious Ainu Robin Hood figure.

Perhaps I need to see the movie again to judge it fairly. But this was the film in the entire Uchida series that I most looked forward to seeing, and it was almost the only one that left me hungry for more.

 

Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka
(Naniwa no Koi no Monogatari, 1959)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #7

Portraying the real-life story that the puppet theater playwright Chikamatsu adapted for his classic play, The Courier for Hell (Meido no hikyaku), this movie boasts vibrant, sumptuous color and brilliant camerawork: it’s a perfectly crafted piece. Yet the filmmaker’s real achievement here is in revealing the rottenness and cruelty behind the rich, glamorous world of 18th Century Osaka that he recreates.

Chubei (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is the young adopted son of a no-nonsense businesswoman (Kinuyo Tanaka) who runs a courier service. Employed by this woman as a humble courier – “a merchant’s money is a samurai’s sword,” she ominously tells him – he waits on the distant day when he can inherit the business and marry the woman’s daughter. Dragged, literally, to the city’s licensed pleasure quarters by his bullying friend Hachi (Kurosawa regular Minoru Chiaki), the virginal Chubei falls head-over-heels for the beautiful, compassionate courtesan Umegawa (Ineko Arima). He desperately wants to buy out her contract to the brothel, but lacks the cash to do so – except, of course, when he’s carrying other people’s money as a courier.

Uchida’s brilliant strategy is to introduce Chikamatsu (Chiezō Kataoka) as a character in the narrative. As a celebrity playwright respected by all, he is very much in “the floating world” but not quite of it. He’s scornful of the greed and exploitation he sees, yet for the sake of his art, he himself exploits, through drama, the suffering these vices cause. And the character is sometimes used wittily by Uchida. Just after the lovers have fled Osaka, a serving maid asks Chikamatsu if they have, as she’s heard, committed double suicide, and he chides the woman for getting ahead of the plot.

The final scene in the movie is thrilling. The shot begins with a closeup of Chikamatsu sitting at the rear of a theater. Then the camera pulls back to show the audience rapturously watching his new play (The Courier for Hell, of course), until we finally reach the stage, on which we see, in closeup, a remarkable puppet performance, movingly evoking a scene in the lovers’ tragedy that never actually happened in real life. Then there’s a great, final closeup in which Kataoka as Chikamatsu looks straight into the camera and at us, his eyes seeming to burn with indignation at our sinful world, as the image fades.

Uchida portrays Chikamatsu as a god-like figure, unable to protect humans from their folly, but fully capable of redeeming their lives through art.

 

Killing in Yoshiwara (aka, Hero of the Red-Light District)
(
Yōtō monogatari: hana no Yoshiwara hyakunin-giri, 1960)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #12

One of Uchida’s very greatest works, Killing in Yoshiwara is compelling but extremely painful viewing, for we watch helplessly as a good but naïve man destroys himself. The plot suggests Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens crossed with Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. But as masterly as Renoir’s film was, he failed to summon as much audience empathy for his hero as Uchida does for his.

The narrative begins with a great origin story, like a tragic version of Moses. An abandoned infant with a hideous purple birthmark on his cheek is discovered by a childless couple, a short sword and a brief document the only evidence of his samurai origins. Jiro (Chiezō Kataoka) grows up to be a wealthy but humble silk manufacturer. All his employees love him, despite the grotesque birthmark. The only thing missing from Jiro’s life is a wife to bear him an heir to carry on the business… and to relieve his loneliness.

One of Jiro’s business associates, acting as a go-between, arranges his offer of marriage to a prospective bride – a homely, aging, but respectable woman. Before she can give a definite answer, though, the businessman offers to treat Jiro (who’s almost certainly a virgin) to an evening at Tokyo’s licensed pleasure quarter, Yoshiwara.

There he meets the attractive but terrifying empty Tsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), a common streetwalker working in the brothel as a serving maid, and the only woman in the place willing to entertain him. When they are left alone together, she actually kisses the awful birthmark, saying “I’ve kissed it all away.” No wonder the poor guy is hooked! But Tsuru is incapable of love. Her only motivation for seducing the rich man is to exact revenge on the real courtesans and on her employers, all of whom despise and humiliate her.

What makes the story a tragedy rather than a mere melodrama is that even though Jiro foolishly spends a fortune from his savings to advance his new mistress’ career, he never loses his basic decency. When a natural disaster wipes out the supply of silk upon which his business depends, he spends a second fortune to keep his suppliers from starvation.

This film was written by Yoshikada Yoda, Kenji Mizoguchi’s great scriptwriter, but there are many masterful touches Uchida employs that were almost certainly not part of Yoda’s script, good as it is. For example, there’s a marvelous scene when Tsuru, under Jiro’s sponsorship, parades through the town as the newest courtesan. She is haughty and smiling and he, walking beside her, looks proud and pleased. But in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, a little girl is walking along, staring up at them, utterly amazed at the behavior of these foolish adults.

I have a confession to make here. I usually strongly disdain what I call the “one-man army” swordfighting scenes so frequent in Japanese period films. This is when a lone swordsman holds off a whole city’s worth (or so it seems) of adversaries – even when they’re surrounding him – and slices and dices them efficiently, like so many slabs of prime rib.

But the climax of this film is an outstanding exception to this cliché. The action is weirdly plausible because Jiro, now crazed, is acting out the rage and pain that had been building up in him long before he’d had the misfortune of meeting Tsuru, giving him almost superhuman strength. But the beauty that Uchida evokes – cherry blossoms are gently falling as the merchant attacks his enemies – is just about the only thing that makes it bearable.

Killing in Yoshiwara is a singularly cruel masterpiece.

 

The Mad Fox (a.k.a., Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow)
(Koi ya koi nasuna koi, 1962)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #18

Image from The Mad Fox (1962) by Tomu Uchida

Hashizō Ōkawa (seated) in The Mad Fox/Koi ya koi nasuna koi. 1962. Directed by Tomu Uchida. (C)TOEI COMPANY, LTD

This grim fairy tale represents the polar opposite from the stylized realism that Uchida mastered in the 1930s with Police Officer and Earth, and continued to explore in his 1950s movies, like Bloody Spear and The Outsiders. In ancient Japan, Yasuna (Hashizo Okawa) is a disciple of the elderly astronomer, Yasunori. The astronomer’s adopted daughter, Sakaki (Michiko Saga), has fallen in love with Yasuna. Yasunori, however, is murdered by order of his wicked wife (Sumiko Hidaka) and her ambitious lover. The imperial court demands that Yasunori’s prophetic scroll be produced, but it has vanished, and Sakaki is falsely accused of having stolen it. She and Yasuna are imprisoned by Yasunori’s widow (the real thief) and brutally tortured, and Sakaki dies of her injuries. Poor Yasuna goes mad, accidentally sets the place on fire, killing the evil widow, and vanishes into the night.

But as soon as Yasuna goes nuts, so does the movie. The young man, who thinks Sakaki’s still alive, meets Kuzunoha, her identical twin sister (also played by Ms. Saga) and when he starts calling her Sakaki, she goes along with the deception. Then a female fox (Ms. Saga again), who is actually not at all mad, falls in love with Yasuna. Since the magic fox is capable of assuming human form, she disguises herself as the deceased Sakaki (or the living Kuzunoha: it’s not clear which), and the couple bears a half-fox, half-human child together.

If you’re thoroughly confused by now, it doesn’t matter, because plot coherence and plausibility are totally beside the point here. Uchida has a field day mixing and matching various traditional Japanese cultural forms to tell his story – folk tales, Kabuki, Bunraku, Rakugo and Noh among them. In scene after scene, the director delights in creating anti-realistic imagery, theatrical-looking artifice and clever bits of business. If Michael Powell had seen this movie, he would have been green with envy.

But underneath the charming surface of the narrative, there’s a bleak subtext. Except for Yasunori’s widow, all the evil characters triumph, while the good ones are destroyed, damaged or powerless in the end. Beyond all the feverish fantasy, this, it appears, is Uchida’s “realism”: art, like a madman’s delusions, is only a palliative in a world that’s always been incorrigibly cruel and corrupt.

 

A Fugitive from the Past (a.k.a., The Hunger Straits)
(
Kiga Kaikyo, 1965)
Kinema Junpo ranking: #5
Kinema Junpo Best-of-All-Time ranking (1999): #3

I doubt if any single work could possibly have utilized all of Tomu Uchida’s diverse strengths as a moviemaker. But the very dark thriller, A Fugitive from the Past, probably comes closer to that ideal than any picture the director ever made. It was the most critically-esteemed film of Uchida’s postwar career, and in recent years it has become by far his most admired work, selected by critics in 1999 as the third-greatest Japanese film of all time.

The story of a man in postwar Japan whose involvement in a robbery-murder results in a complex web of crime and guilt, the work may be considered flawed by the near-total absence of the director’s customary humor and cinematic playfulness, replaced here by a dark, somber irony. For that reason, this very long movie is a bit tough to sit through at times. But it remains Uchida’s strongest variation on his recurring themes of Karmic guilt, retribution and redemption.

This was the director’s first black-and-white movie since 1957 – it was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm to achieve a gritty, “dirty” look – and the cinematography, by Hanjirō Nakazawa, is amazing to behold. As commentators have noted, Uchida, who was in his middle sixties when he made this movie, incorporates here the influence of Japanese New Wave filmmakers half his age, such as Nagisa Ōshima and Shōhei Imamura.

Having seen Police Officer, however, I now realize that, in going New Wave, he was merely updating the bold, kinetic, sometimes expressionistic techniques of his own 1930s films for a modern audience. For example, several times in the narrative, at moments of highest intensity, the cinematic image suddenly “goes negative” for several seconds – think of the thermographic photos on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ album, Emotional Rescue – a visual motif that could have seemed pretentious or odd, but which works beautifully.

The film contains two of the strongest performances in the history of Japanese Cinema: Rentarō Mikuni as the ambiguous yet sympathetic fugitive of the title, Inukai, and Sachiko Hidari as the truly strange and frightening innocent, Sugito Yae. Add to all this an interesting music score by future synthesizer king Isao Tomita, and several fine supporting performers, including character actor Junzaburo Ban and the young Ken Takakura (he became a superstar in Japan later that year, with Teruo Ishii’s Abashiri Prison), and you have what is surely one of the finest Japanese films ever made.

 

Overall, of all Japanese directors whose work I know at all well, I would now put Uchida in sixth place, just below the “big four” masters – Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse – and Masaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition, Harakiri, Kwaidan). If a ranking of “sixth best” doesn’t seem very impressive, keep in mind that I am rating him above literally dozens of wonderful directors, including contemporaries such as Yamanaka, Gosho, Kinoshita, Ichikawa, Imai, Shindo, Honda, Imamura and Teshigahara. For in the final analysis, the quality that puts Uchida in the same league as artists like, say, Kurosawa and Kobayashi – and which many of his worthy colleagues, however talented, didn’t possess – is a tragic sense of life, and an ability to communicate that vision cinematically.

The phenomenon of good people who do truly awful, destructive and self-destructive things is a mystery that sages and saints have been trying to fathom for millennia. It’s a mystery that obsessed Uchida, too, but few film artists in Japan – or anywhere – have managed to explore this dilemma with as much depth and passion as he.

 

Chaplin

The Mutual Films: Chaplin’s Historic “Golden Dozen”

floor1

A century ago this month, Charlie Chaplin signed a one-year contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for $670,000. In addition to becoming the highest-paid entertainer in the world, he produced 12 two-reel comedies that represent some of his finest work.

The Mutual series captured the essence of Chaplin’s seriocomic brilliance while revealing an artist at the peak of his powers — a phenomenal success that enabled him to maintain his creative freedom.  When viewing the 12 shorts in chronological order, his astonishing maturity as a filmmaker and performer becomes evident.

The Floorwalker (May 1916) and The Fireman (June 1916) already show a marked improvement upon Chaplin’s previous films.  The rough-edged quality of the Keystone and Essanay shorts have been replaced by a more polished style, especially in terms of set design and cinematography.  There also is a stronger sense of ensemble with the menacing debut of Eric Campbell, who became regarded as the quintessential Chaplin heavy.  The David and Goliath relationship between Chaplin and Campbell is established immediately in their knockabout ballets — sparking an antagonistic yet symbiotic rapport that evolves throughout the Mutual series.

Though Chaplin has found a solid foundation in production and casting, the humor remains deeply rooted in the Keystone slapstick tradition.  Still, The Floorwalker and The Fireman expand upon Chaplin’s playful anarchy toward society by exposing the corruption and fraud within (i.e., embezzlement in a department store, a fire chief’s arson scheme).

Eric Campbell and Chaplin in The Fireman (1916)

Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin in The Fireman.

Charlie, the outsider, emerges as an unlikely hero in both films and, ironically, saves the institutions from ruin. However, there is a sense of detachment in his actions. “The discovery that he could not be anyone because it was too easy to be everyone unleashed a number of things in Chaplin,” Walter Kerr noted in his critical study The Silent Clowns (1975). “It is marvelous that he can enter so wholeheartedly into the activity that briefly engages him, [yet] shattering to realize that his heart is not in it at all.”

At this stage in his career, Chaplin was giving his audiences what they wanted.  Considering his salary at that time, he wasn’t going to depart from traditional slapstick until the success of The Floorwalker and The Fireman was assured.  Once proven, he took some tremendous leaps.

Photographed mostly outdoors, The Vagabond (July 1916) veers toward straight drama in the D.W. Griffith tradition. Charlie plays a street musician who saves a girl (Edna Purviance) kidnapped and enslaved by sadistic gypsies.  His rescue of the girl features a skillful tracking shot of the gypsies’ unsuccessful pursuit, filmed from inside the moving caravan — a fine example of Chaplin’s inventiveness with the camera.

Having established camp along a country road, Charlie takes care of the girl in a paternal, unromantic fashion.  Eventually, the girl falls in love with a traveling artist who paints her portrait, which later is discovered by the girl’s wealthy mother at an exhibit.  The artist then helps the mother locate her daughter.  Charlie, realizing that the girl and artist are meant for each other, stays behind as the others drive off.  Instead of the traditional Chaplin ending, the girl orders the driver to turn back and she drags Charlie into the car; however, it is unlikely he will co-exist in this upscale environment.

Charlie serenades Edna Purviance in The Vagabond.

Charlie serenades Edna Purviance in The Vagabond.

Despite its ambiguous ending, the film’s stark cultural contrasts emerge as social themes that Chaplin will explore in later Mutual comedies and in features such as The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). Though he has not found the ideal balance of humor and drama, The Vagabond remains one of Chaplin’s most unusual works.

One A.M. (August 1916) marks yet another Chaplin experiment.  The film represents his only solo vehicle, a one-man display of pantomimic virtuosity.  Chaplin’s expert turn as a bon vivant (who struggles with numerous inanimate objects in his attempt to reach his bedroom) cannot be faulted, yet the claustrophobic setting and one-joke premise soon grows monotonous.

For all his comic gifts, Chaplin benefited enormously from his Mutual stock company and the talents of Campbell, Purviance, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Without this unique chemistry, Chaplin’s creativity as a performer and filmmaker was less effective. One A.M. revealed that his presence alone could not sustain a two-reel comedy.

The Count (September 1916) returns Chaplin to familiar territory — reviving the time-worn premise of Charlie invading high society by impersonating an individual of stature and wealth. However, Chaplin avoids the usual contrast between the rich and poor by elevating his character’s social position.  Instead of the Tramp, he plays a tailor who is mistaken for a count and becomes the hit of the party until the real count arrives. Chaplin effectively ridicules the pretentiousness of the upper class in ways that predate the anarchic irreverence of the Marx Brothers, notably the scene in which Charlie masters the art of eating watermelon at a lavish dinner.

Eric, Charlie and Edna in The Count (1916).

Eric, Charlie and Edna in The Count.

Unlike the previous Mutuals, The Count contains a tremendous amount of vitality and comic precision.  The escalating battles between Chaplin and Campbell culminate in a superbly timed ballet of physical violence, with enough kicking and acrobatic chasing for several two-reelers.  After more than two years and 38 short films, Chaplin firmly establishes a stylistic fusion of direction and performance that becomes a hallmark in the Mutual series.

In terms of sustained inventiveness, The Pawnshop (October 1916) ranks among the best Chaplin comedies, particularly in his utilization of props.  As a pawnbroker’s assistant, Charlie makes creative use of objects ranging from stale doughnuts to an alarm clock that requires a surgical procedure. If there is a rope on the floor, he walks across it as though he were a high-wire artist.  Chaplin’s performance has an effortless, balletic grace rarely seen in his later films.

Perhaps the most revealing moment in The Pawnshop is the final shot in which Charlie emerges from a trunk to capture a thief, then bows to the camera, hugs the pawnbroker’s daughter and delivers a swift back-kick to his rival — all in one remarkable take.  Apart from the flawless timing and choreography, the sequence is another example of Chaplin’s playful detachment in a heroic situation.

The Pawnshop (1916).

Charlie at work in The Pawnshop.

Unfortunately, Chaplin jettisoned much of this comic detachment after he left Mutual and gradually became a more self-conscious performer, as if he wanted to belong.  Perhaps that is why the best of his post-Mutual films are The Pilgrim (1923) and Modern Times (1936). In both instances, Chaplin eliminates some of his pathos and recaptures the exhilaration of playfulness.

This lack of pretentiousness emerges as an underlying thread throughout the Mutual period. A lighthearted satire on moviemaking, Behind the Screen (November 1916) represents another throwback to Chaplin’s days at Keystone. The film also includes one of the most notable references to homosexuality in early cinema.  When stagehand Campbell catches Charlie kissing Edna (disguised as a boy), his bullying character reacts in a stereotypical gay manner — a surprising transformation even by today’s standards.

Despite these intriguing elements, Behind the Screen is a routine effort. The Rink (December 1916), on the other hand, provides a bravura showcase for Chaplin’s versatility. Not only does the Little Fellow become a skater of remarkable agility, but he also mixes a cocktail with elaborate flourish. Chaplin’s engaging performance turns a serviceable farce into a hilarious ballet on wheels — nicely abetted by his colorful ensemble cast (with Austin and Bergman in dual roles). One of the best-known Mutual shorts, The Rink is a timeless slapstick gem. For uninitiated viewers, it remains the perfect introduction to Chaplin’s comic artistry.

The Rink: Chaos on wheels.

The Rink: Chaos on wheels.

By 1917, Chaplin had become more of a perfectionist in his working methods and began to miss contractual deadlines.  Exhibitors would have to wait longer for his final Mutual releases, yet the results were worth the extra time and expense.

Easy Street (February 1917), Chaplin’s first masterpiece, incorporates elements of social criticism that would become evident in his later features. The film is an effective depiction of urban poverty with its realistic sets and harshness of tone — established by the dramatic opening scene that finds Charlie in a destitute state.

In one of Chaplin’s satirical jabs at religion, Charlie is “reformed” by a young mission worker (Purviance), upon which he returns the collection box he has stolen.  Encouraged to do good, Charlie bravely joins a failing police force and receives the dangerous assignment of patrolling Easy Street, a gang battlefield ruled by the towering Bully (Campbell in kabuki-style makeup).  The ingenious tactics Charlie uses to conquer the Bully represent the finest screen moments between Chaplin and Campbell — highlights of an exquisitely paced short. (Don Fairservice’s 2001 book Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice offers valuable insights into Chaplin’s editing methods on Easy Street and his remaining three Mutual comedies.)

Charlie the cop conquers the Bully of Easy Street.

Charlie the cop conquers the Bully of Easy Street.

Surrounded by bleak atmosphere, Easy Street contrasts sharply with the fashionable delirium of The Cure (April 1917).  In this sanitarium satire, Chaplin plays an inebriated gentleman who wreaks havoc upon a health spa when his liquor supply is dumped into the spa waters. Superior to One A.M., the film is a delightful record of Chaplin’s mastery as a comic drunk, with a strong assist from Campbell as the gout-ridden patient. Ironically, The Cure would have made a great vehicle for W.C. Fields — a devout Chaplin hater.

A brilliant weaving of pathos and humor, The Immigrant (June 1917) represents the high-water mark of Chaplin’s Mutual period.  By chronicling the plight of two lonely, poverty-stricken immigrants (Charlie and Edna) who are romantically reunited in a cheap restaurant, this two-reel masterwork has a narrative seamlessness that Chaplin never duplicated.

Chaplin’s rapport with Purviance adds a poignancy and depth to The Immigrant not seen in their other collaborations.  The relationship between their characters reveals an emotional impact conveyed without title cards, such as the moment when Charlie discovers that Edna’s mother has died.  This unique chemistry, sensitively handled by Chaplin, gives the film its soul.

The Immigrant: "Arrival in the Land of Liberty."

The Immigrant:  “Arrival in the Land of Liberty.”

Social commentary comes into play during the ironic scene in which the immigrants are treated like cattle while their ship passes the Statue of Liberty — a portent of the political troubles that would lead to Chaplin’s exile from America in 1952. Nevertheless, The Immigrant remains his most humanistic and endearing film. A few years before his death, Chaplin offered his own assessment in the illustrated memoir My Life in Pictures (1974): “[The Immigrant] touched me more than any other film I made.”

The last Mutual comedy, The Adventurer (October 1917), proved to be the most popular of the series.  It also marked the final screen appearance of Eric Campbell, who was killed in a car crash two months after the film’s release.  The loss was immeasurable to Chaplin, who never again found a comic villain equal to Campbell’s talent and screen presence.

Fast and furious, The Adventurer is slapstick par excellence. Chaplin delivers a beautifully timed performance as an escaped convict whose heroic deeds get him invited to a wealthy family’s home.  Adapting to the lavish lifestyle, Charlie battles with Eric for the affections of Edna until the prison guards discover his whereabouts.  Shot partly on location in Malibu, the film includes two of Chaplin’s most inventive chase sequences — providing ideal bookends to the temporary refuge of high society.

In many ways, The Adventurer was Charlie Chaplin’s farewell to the art of the two-reeler.  After his Mutual contract ended in 1917, he produced longer and more expressive films; however, few of those later efforts would recapture the exuberance and self-assuredness of that glorious 18-month period. As a body of work, the Chaplin Mutuals represent an indispensable part of film history.

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“What a World”: Recreating Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles for “Farewell, My Lovely”

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To date, there have been eight attempts at bringing Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective Philip Marlowe to the big screen, and only two of them have been keepers, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, and Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with Robert Mitchum in the role. The Big Sleep has been available on home video for decades, but it wasn’t until last month, more than 40 years after its theatrical release, that Farewell, My Lovely was finally given an authorized DVD release (by Shout! Factory). Just in time, too. It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the film noir fanatic on your holiday gift list.

That’s because Farewell, My Lovely was Richards’ affectionate Valentine to the film noirs of the 1940s. A serious, faithful Valentine, not a spoof (like those unfunny 70s “comedies” The Black Bird and Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective) nor a post-modern deconstruction of the genre (like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves). As he explained it to me, Richards was determined to recreate the feel of the original film noirs from the first decade of the genre. (Albeit with Technicolor prints and relaxed censorship.) Richards was kind enough to allow me to interview him in connection with this article, which was fortunate because my on-line research yielded precious little information about the making of this film. (And what few factoids I found turned out to be false. More about those later.)

If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes provided the DNA that all subsequent fictional British detectives were descended from, Chandler’s Marlowe was its American equivalent. By his own admission, Chandler wasn’t the first writer to create believable detective fiction for pulp magazines that owed nothing to the British drawing room mysteries popularized by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; Dashiell Hammett got there first.[1] As Chandler memorably put it in his celebrated essay The Simple Art of Murder: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley… Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

Although Philip Marlowe is basically an idealization of what a heroic private detective should be, with his honesty, integrity, and well-defined code of honor (one that Chandler gladly admitted was a fantasy of his own imagination), it doesn’t change the fact that Marlowe is the mold that all subsequent fictional American detectives have been set from. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee were particularly influenced by Marlowe, even down to the first-person narration peppered with wisecracks and wry observations about modern society.

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Robert Mitchum

It is the character of Marlowe that creates the biggest challenge for filmmakers trying to do justice to Chandler’s stories on the screen. While some of the other actors who attempted the role, such as Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, and Elliott Gould, had considerable acting chops, they still fell short of the standard set by Bogart and Mitchum. It’s not enough for an actor to be able to be convincing as a tough guy with a flair for flippancy to play Marlowe; most importantly, the actor has to exude an unmistakable sense of melancholy as Marlowe, one based on a longing for a better world without greed, fear, or corruption, a world where the rich and powerful aren’t free to ruin the lives of others who are defenseless against them. More than any of the other would-be Marlowes, Bogart and Mitchum embodied that tarnished idealism. Richards put it this way: “I’ve always said that Chandler had somebody like Mitchum in mind when he wrote Farewell. Tough guys at that time in film noir weren’t defined by muscles. They had ways of being tough and muscles wasn’t one of them… There was a certain melancholy they endured that gave them a reason for being a tough guy.”

The other main difficulty in adapting Chandler’s books for the screen is the incredible complexity of his plots. His convoluted plotting owed no little thanks to the fact that his first four novels were mash-ups of elements from the short stories he wrote at the start of his pulp career. (The reason that Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep is so notorious for its confusing storyline is due mainly to a combination of plot elements changed or eliminated in accordance with the censorship code, Hawks’ own disregard for story exposition, and one infamous mistake on Chandler’s part.[2]) Once again, by his own admission, Chandler simply didn’t care about story construction or who did what to whom. As he expressed it, “I don’t care whether the mystery is fairly obvious but I do care about the people, about this strange, corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or just plain foolish.”[3]

But whatever shortcomings Chandler may have had in constructing his plots, he more than made up for them with his genius for writing dialogue. As an American with a classical education from Dulwich College in London, Chandler was a frustrated would-be poet who was drawn to pulp mystery fiction by the creative uses of slang he found in them. In a 1949 letter to Canadian journalist Alex Barris, Chandler explained his fascination with the language of the pulps: “[W]hen I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk, or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself.” [4]

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Robert Mitchum

Even filmmaker Billy Wilder, who was certainly no slouch when it came to writing dialogue himself, credited Chandler with coming up with the best lines in their screenplay for Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Example: After the film’s protagonist takes a sip of iced tea, he mutters, “I wonder if a little rum would get this up on its feet.” Or in the novel Farewell, My Lovely, when Marlowe interrogates a quack doctor who runs a sleazy sanitarium, he says, “Remarks want you to make them. They have their tongues hanging out waiting to be said.” [5]

Farewell, My Lovely (1940), which followed Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep (1939), is arguably Chandler’s best work,[6] because it has his most straightforward plot, in which Marlowe is hired by a hulking ex-con to find his long-lost girlfriend. Although Marlowe’s investigation leads to the usual detours and false leads, the entire mystery revolves around a single question: Where is Velma Valento? Once the answer is provided at the end of the story, all of the other pieces of the puzzle fall neatly into place. (Or as Mitchum’s Marlowe puts it at the end of the film, “Now it all makes sense, everything.”)

Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely was the third time Chandler’s novel had been filmed. The first version, made in 1942, titled The Falcon Takes Over, dropped the character of Marlowe altogether. It was the third entry in RKO’s low-budget series of programmers based on Michael Arlen’s debonair sleuth The Falcon, with George Sanders’ Falcon filling in for Marlowe, and the setting changed from Los Angeles to New York City.

Since they already owned the film rights to Chandler’s novel, RKO agreed to remake the story two years later at the urging of actor Dick Powell, who was desperate to shed his baby-faced male ingénue image and thought that Marlowe was the perfect role to achieve that goal.[7] (Powell had tried to escape his typecasting earlier that year when he campaigned for the lead in Double Indemnity, but Wilder had an even more unlikely male ingénue in mind, Fred MacMurray.) Since Powell was so associated with musicals and light comedies, the RKO suits decided to rename the film Murder, My Sweet for the US market. (In the UK, where, thanks to the Brits’ devotion to the mystery genre, Chandler’s name was a bigger draw than Powell’s, the film retained the original title Farewell, My Lovely.)

The wheels were set into motion for Richards’ version when Hollywood producer Elliott Kastner obtained the film rights to three of Chandler’s novels from his estate in the early 1970s.[8] The first one Kastner produced was Robert Altman’s 1973 film version of The Long Goodbye. This was set in modern Los Angeles rather than the novel’s original setting 20 years earlier, mainly because it was cheaper than shelling out for period costumes, props, and sets. In fact, Altman decided to turn a possible liability into an asset by building the entire film around the concept of Marlowe being an anachronism in 70s LA.

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Robert Mitchum

Kastner decided to make Farewell, My Lovely his second Chandler adaptation, and that’s where Richards, a former photographer turned filmmaker, came in. “A version of Farewell was presented to me by Elliot Kastner with a contemporary script,” Richards told me. “I turned it down, giving Kastner the option of my doing it if he would let me make it a film noir movie and keep it in that period.” Kastner gave in to that provision and Richards agreed to direct the film mainly because, as he put it, “the motivation really was working with Robert Mitchum.” (By the way, many sources claim that Richard Burton was the first choice to play Marlowe, including the usual suspects Wikipedia and the IMDB, but Richards shot that down. “I have never heard about Richard Burton being thought of, but that may have happened during the period of the contemporary script that I turned down. When presented, Mitchum was a yes by everybody, even though some commented that he wasn’t box office anymore.”)

Richards’ next step was bringing in David Zelag Goodman to write the screenplay. Goodman’s previous credits had included Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), and he would go on to script two of Richards’ subsequent films, March or Die (1977) and Man, Woman and Child (1983). They set their version of Farewell, My Lovely in 1941, so that they could reinforce the period setting by making Marlowe a baseball fan following Joe DiMaggio’s famous hitting streak of that year. “David Goodman and I had worked on various scripts and I had felt that I wanted to have this version of Farewell stamped with a time-mark,” Richards said. “Goodman, not me, came up with the Joe DiMaggio hitting streak. By the way, he was a crazy New York Yankees fan and could recite the complete Yankee rosters from 1927 on.” 

The early 40s setting required a top-rate team of designers to recreate the look of the period and Richards’ commissioned two of the best in the business, production designer Dean Tavoularis (who’d already worked on Chinatown, another period detective mystery set in LA) and art director Angelo Graham. “Tavoularis and Graham were my heroes. They understood the period and they found every location, and since we never went into a studio, that was a great asset… [They] had a team of Los Angelinos help find the locations. We even went as far as Long Beach to shoot, and we were lucky enough at the time to find enough areas that were still in the style of the period. Both Tavoularis and Graham were born and raised, I believe, in Los Angeles and they knew the areas to send the scouts to.”

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Robert Mitchum

For a cinematographer to capture his vision of the story, Richards brought in another alumnus from Polanski’s Chinatown, John Alonzo. One of the distinctions of the picture’s cinematography was its use of a film stock known as Fujifilm to give the picture’s neon-soaked hues a faded, stylized look, kind of like a color equivalent of black and white photography. “Having been a photographer before a director, I experimented with different films, trying to find a film that would offer a bit of grain that I felt would achieve the period look. I believe Farewell was the first feature film ever shot with Fujifilm in America. At that time, Fujifilm had been used to make prints to send to theaters. The film stock helped, but the tones were really brought out by Dean Tavoularis, who chose the colors to imitate the feel of black and white.” The combined efforts of Tavoularis, Graham, and Alonzo more than succeeded in establishing the period look. More than any other film adaptation of Chandler’s work, even more than Hawks’ The Big Sleep (which was filmed entirely on studio sets even though the actual locations were just outside the Warner Brothers lot), Richards’ picture looks just like the Los Angeles invoked by its author.

Another invaluable member of the creative team was composer David Shire, whose haunting and evocative jazz score was one of the film’s greatest assets. Like Bernard Herrmann, Shire’s best work was done in the thriller and fantasy genres. Shire’s two most notable credits before Farewell, My Lovely were both thrillers, his minimalist solo piano jazz score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and his throbbing, pulse-pounding jazz/rock fusion score for Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (also 1974). Shire’s masterpiece would come a decade after Farewell, his gorgeous symphonic score for Walter Murch’s underrated fantasy Return to Oz (1985).

Shire’s music perfectly enhanced Tavoularis and Graham’s period recreation. Shire also got into the spirit of the mystery genre by providing a major clue to the solution of the puzzle in his score. (And, no, I won’t spoil the mystery by pointing out that clue. You’ll have the see—and hear—the movie for yourself.) In addition, Shire complimented Richards’ homage to the classic film noirs by providing his own homage to their composers. “Mrs. Grayle’s Theme,” a sultry romantic melody for strings and horns, was Shire’s tribute to David Raksin’s iconic theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). The music accompanying the climatic sequence where Marlowe and his client take a nocturnal speedboat ride to an off-limits gambling yacht (cheekily titled “Take Me to Your Lido” on the soundtrack LP), with its emphasis of aggressive, militaristic percussion and blaring horns, was Shire’s homage to Miklos Rozsa, whose scores graced many of the classic film noirs, such as Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), and Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947). And best of all was Shire’s “Marlowe’s Theme,” a sad, melancholy blues lament utilizing a background for strings with solos for Dick Nash’s trombone and Ronny Lang’s saxophone, the perfect accompaniment for Robert Mitchum’s Marlowe.

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Robert Mitchum

Mitchum was born to play Philip Marlowe. The suits might’ve been skeptical about Mitchum’s box office appeal at the time, but 1973-75 had been banner years for him. Farewell, My Lovely was the third of three superlative crime thrillers he’d made during that period, following Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and Sydney Pollock’s The Yakuza (1974). (Talk about a winning streak….) As riveting as the young feral Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s had been, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 1970s was even more fascinating. He rivaled another iconic Hollywood star, Spencer Tracy, when it came to the art of underacting. Mitchum’s casual, laidback approach also extended to his attitude on the set as well. In a 1971 interview with film historian Stuart M. Kaminsky for his book Don Siegel: Director (Curtis Books, 1974), justly celebrated filmmaker Siegel described his experience of working with Mitchum on their 1949 collaboration, a RKO low-budget semi-comic crime thriller called The Big Steal. “I discovered that [Mitchum] was a personality actor. He gave out very little in his performance so that when people acted with him, they seemed to be overdoing it. He also put on an act, like Peter Lorre, pretending that he never studied his lines. He’d mumble that he never saw the scene before, stumble through it once, and then do it perfectly… I think he’s much more serious about his work than he lets on. It’s an affectation on his part that he just doesn’t care.”

When I told Richards about Siegel’s description of Mitchum, he laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s Mitchum exactly.” He then added his own recollections of working with Mitchum. “Mitchum was well-read with a sensational sense of humor. He would pick up on any little peccadillo and make fun of it. Sometimes it was difficult to take, but when you thought carefully about it, it became funny. One day we were running two hours late, and I asked Mitchum to help out and stay late because we had a large group of extras and it would be really expensive to bring them back. He asked me to get one of the ‘Magnificent Seven,’ which is what he called the producers since so many were given credit on the film, to find out if it was okay with the crew to work late. This one producer, not Jerry Bruckheimer, came back five minutes later and said that it would be no problem with the crew. When Mitchum came on the set, he told the crew, ‘Haven’t you guys got homes? Working late? Is that the way you get to stay away from your old lady?’ Everyone in the crew laughed, but one of the grips said, ‘We never said we wanted to work late.’ Mitchum then went up to the producer and said, ‘Get some coffee for me. Make it a little milk, two sugars.’ It was his way of reducing the producer to a messenger in front of the crew.”

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Robert Mitchum

The overall tone of Farewell, My Lovely is set immediately with Shire’s main theme accompanying the opening credits, which are superimposed over actual footage of 1940s Los Angeles tinted in soft jukebox colors. The atmosphere evoked continues with the film’s opening shot: Marlowe looking regretfully through the window of a seedy hotel with a drink in his hand and the hotel’s neon sign reflected in the window pane. (The same image was adapted for the publicity artwork.) The script’s first lines are the beginning of Marlowe’s voiceover narration.

“This past spring was the first that I’d felt tired and realized I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in LA. Maybe it was the rotten cases I’d had, mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives once I’d found them, in order to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired and growing old. The only real pleasure I’d had at all was following Joe DiMaggio, belting the apple at an incredible clip for the New York Yankees. Well, it’s the middle of July now and things are worse than they were in the spring. In the spring, I wasn’t stuck in a dingy hotel ducking the police.”

Marlowe decides the time is right to call in some law, specifically his old friend Lieutenant Detective Nulty of the LA Homicide Squad, played by another familiar film noir actor, John Ireland. (Richards: “A real veteran. I never had to say much to Ireland. He completely understood what I was going for.”) As instructed, Nulty comes to the hotel room alone to listen to Marlowe’s story, signaling the start of the extended flashback that comprises the bulk of the film’s 95-minute running time.

“I was working on a twenty-five dollar-a-day breeze trying to locate a fifteen-year-old runaway from Carmel. An honor student, majoring in men. She had all ‘A’s, but none of them on her report card. She had only one other interest, dancing.”

The film fades to a dime-a-dance joint where the customers crowd the floor accompanied by a band and singer performing Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn’s 40s hit “I’ve Heard That Song Before.” Marlowe finds the bratty teenager (Noelle North) there and threatens to take her out of there, “Look, would you like to dance your way out, you wanna walk out, or would you rather be carried out? It makes no difference to me.” She opts for exiting the place without putting up a fuss.

As he takes her to the limo where her wealthy parents await her after missing “a marvelous dinner party” to come get her, they are followed out of the dance hall by Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), the enormous hulk of a man who will soon be Marlowe’s next client. (According to Richards, O’Halloran was “a natural to play Moose. An ex-boxer and defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Being 6 foot 7 and weighing 250 pounds, Moose was a good name for him. He was a natural actor. This was his first movie and Mitchum helped me give him the confidence he needed.” Richards also told me that the rumors that O’Halloran’s lines had been dubbed by another actor were unfounded.)

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Jack O’Halloran & Robert Mitchum

The Moose starts to introduce himself to Marlowe, but a car rides past and a punk in a cowboy hat (Burton Gilliam) inside takes pot shots at them while they duck down behind a bus stop bench. The car speeds away, but the Moose isn’t the least bit fazed. As Marlowe’s narration puts it, “He didn’t bat an eye. Fear wasn’t built into his giant frame.” Moose tells Marlowe that he wants to hire him. He just got out of the stir after a seven-year stretch for armed robbery. (“The Great Bend Bank robbery. Eighty grand. I did it solo. Ain’t that something?”) His first priority is finding his old girlfriend Velma Valento. “I ain’t seen her in seven years, She ain’t wrote in six,” Moose explains. Marlowe decides to play along and accompanies the Moose to the last place Moose knew where Velma worked, a seedy dive called Florian’s on Central Avenue.

Marlowe: “Hey, this is a colored neighborhood, man. It’s been that way for a long time.”[9]

Moose: “Let’s you and me go on up and maybe nibble a couple. They might know something about my Velma.”

Marlowe: “Now how the hell would they know anything? It’s a colored joint.”

Moose: (grabbing Marlowe by the arm, insisting) “Let’s you and me go on up, huh?”

Marlowe: “Okay, but leave off carrying me, will you? I can walk by myself. I’m all grown up now. I go to the bathroom by myself and everything.”

The two of men head into Florian’s to the stares of the exclusively black patrons there. (The wonderfully dingy barroom is one of Tavoularis and Graham’s best touches.) The bar’s bouncer (Dino Washington) tries to chase them out of there (“No white boys here, fellas. Just for the coloreds.”), but when he plants a right cross on the Moose’s chin, it doesn’t register, and the Moose picks him up and flings him across the room onto a table top, completely incapacitating him. The bartender (Harry Caesar) tells the Moose that the bar’s owner Mr. Montgomery, who’s over at the pool table, would be the one to question about his girl. As the Moose saunters over to back section of the bar, Marlowe asks the bartender if he’s armed.

Bartender: “Got me a sawed-off.”

Marlowe: (sarcastic tone) “That’s illegal. Besides, I don’t think that would stop him anyway—“

A shot rings out. Marlowe runs to the back section to find the Moose with his hands wrapped around the neck of the late Mr. Montgomery, kicking away the gun Montgomery had tried to shoot him with. Seeing as it’s a clear case of self-defense, Marlowe advises the Moose to take a powder. Before taking off, the Moose gives Marlowe a retainer fee.

“The fifty bucks felt snug against my ribs. The joint had emptied out, so I called you, Nulty, and had a few drinks. Mr. Montgomery didn’t seem to mind.”

This entire sequence in Florian’s was taken almost verbatim from the opening two chapters of Chandler’s book. The scene had been seriously botched in the previous two film versions. In The Falcon Takes Over, the seedy bar became a swanky nightclub, and in Murder, My Sweet, the seedy bar was still a seedy bar, but, in both cases, the clientele was exclusively white, making the scene a lot less memorable.

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Sylvia Miles & Robert Mitchum

The next step of Marlowe’s investigation is to locate the former owner of Florian’s. At the fleabag across the street from the bar, Marlowe finds Tommy Ray (Walter McGinn), a white jazz musician, with a black wife and child, who’d played at Florian’s before his marriage had gotten him driven out of his profession. Ray gives Marlowe the address to the decrepit old house where Florian’s widow, Jessie (Sylvia Miles), lives. (Richards: “Everybody agreed on Sylvia Miles without question.” Miles was the recipient of the film’s only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.) Jesse Florian is an over-the-hill ex-showgirl who usually spends her dreary days listening to the obviously new and expensive radio in her living room, but she gladly accepts the pint of whisky Marlowe brought with him and tries to flirt with him over drinks while he tries to pump her for information.

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Robert Mitchum, John Ireland & Harry Dean Stanton

From there, the trail Marlowe follows in search of Velma leads him to several other people who have connections, either close or marginal, to his quest. Among them are Detective Billy Rolfe (Harry Dean Stanton), Nulty’s corrupt weasel of an assistant (Richards: “Stanton is by far one of the best actors Hollywood has ever produced. He got along great with Mitchum, even though they were adversaries in the film.”); Lindsay Marriott (John O’Leary), a fey gigolo who hires Marlowe to help him ransom a jade necklace stolen from a lady friend, and winds up battered to death with a sap after Marlowe is knocked out by the assailants; Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe), a smooth gangster who has lots of political muscle due to the cops and city officials on his payroll (Richards: “A deservedly well thought of actor who didn’t need me to say very much. He too understood what I was going for.”); Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh), the tough lesbian madam of one of LA’s most frequented whorehouses[10] (Richards: “She was a person I had once interviewed for a commercial I was shooting and I never forgot her. Kate was a real trooper. I never really thought she was happy to have played a madam, but at the end of the shoot she came up to me and thanked me.”); Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle (played by famous pulp novelist and screenwriter Jim Thompson), a wealthy ex-jurist who’s also one of LA’s major players and is noted for his priceless jade collection (Richards: “Thompson was, of course, one of the fathers of film noir, and he was gracious enough to become Judge Grayle for me. Of course I was honored.”); and, most importantly, Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling), the Judge’s promiscuous young wife (Richards: “Rampling was Elliot Kastner’s great idea.”).[11]

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Charlotte Rampling

When it was first released, it seemed as though Farewell, My Lovely was going to be a box office disappointment. “It was opened in mid-August,” Richards told me, “possibly one of the worst times to bring out a film. Then it opened in New York to great reviews and business.” “It is, indeed, the most evocative of all the private detective movies we have had in the last few years,” Roger Ebert raved. “Farewell, My Lovely is a great entertainment and a celebration of Robert Mitchum’s absolute originality.” Richards is still particularly proud of Rex Reed’s review, where he said, “Farewell, My Lovely is the kind of movie Bogart would stand in line to see.”[12]

In the end, Farewell, My Lovely did good enough overall business to allow Richards to get approval to make March or Die, an excellent attempt to revive the Foreign Legion adventure genre that failed to repeat Farewell, My Lovely’s success at the box office. After three more pictures, the last being Heat (1986), a disastrous collaboration between Richards and star Burt Reynolds that left both men regretting the experience, and an equally disastrous encounter with Dustin Hoffman over a script Richards hoped to direct, Richards decided to retire from the film industry and moved to New York. [13] 

Another result of Farewell, My Lovely being a surprise hit was Elliott Kastner’s decision to make a third Chandler film with Mitchum repeating his role as Marlowe, the first and only time that an actor has played Marlowe twice for the big screen. This next film would also be a remake, a second filming of The Big Sleep. Unfortunately, Kastner failed to learn the lesson of Richards’ approach and opted once again to give the story a contemporary setting. To add injury to insult, Kastner also decided to save even more money by moving the story from Los Angeles to London and assigned notorious hack Michael Winner to write and direct the picture. Not surprisingly, Winner’s The Big Sleep (1978) opened to universally negative reviews and sank without a trace. To say this turkey came nowhere near the quality of Hawks’ original or Richards’ take on Chandler would be, to quote Joss Whedon’s script for the pilot of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, “an understatement of epic proportions.”

The long-awaited DVD of Farewell, My Lovely, produced by Timeless Media Group and released by Shout! Factory, features a pristine widescreen transfer. The only extras, however, are two original theatrical trailers.

When I first began work on this article, I reached out to my friends in the film historian community for any info they could provide me with. (Special thanks to Dwayne Epstein, author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, for pointing me to Dick Richards’ personal website.) I’m happy to report that Richards has been extremely gratified to hear about how many people are still interested in his work and his best film. 

 

[1] I suppose it can be argued that Jonathan Latimer “got there first” with his cynical detective character Bill Crane, but, as entertaining as it is, Latimer’s writing is crude with virtually none of Hammett or Chandler’s nuance and artistry and, therefore, wasn’t even close to matching their influence on future writers.

[2] In tying up The Big Sleep’s loose ends, Chandler had forgotten to provide the solution to one of the murders. He wasn’t aware of his mistake until Hawks sent him a telegram asking who’d committed the murder. Chandler admitted that he didn’t know. A hack filmmaker probably would’ve “corrected” the mistake, but it’s a testament to Hawks’ genius that he decided that, if the murder wasn’t solved in the book, it wouldn’t be solved in his film version.

[3]Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. by Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

[4] Also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking.

[5] Unfortunately, this wonderful line is missing from Richards’ film version. In the movie, the sanitarium became a brothel, and, frankly, the equivalent line was pretty lame: “What’s the matter? Cat house got your tongue?”

[6] Although The Long Goodbye (1953) is widely considered to be Chandler’s masterpiece (it’s certainly his most ambitious work), for many others it falls short of Farewell, My Lovely’s succinctness and stronger story. 

[7] While Chandler liked Powell’s Marlowe and thought he looked pretty much as he imagined the character, he never said that he thought that Powell was the screen’s best Marlowe, despite Pauline Kael’s false assertions. Chandler’s personal favorite among the films based on his work in his lifetime was Hawks’ The Big Sleep. As he said in a 1946 letter to his publisher Hamish Hamilton (also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking), “When and if you see the film of The Big Sleep… you will realize what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humour [note the British spelling] that contains that grating undertone of contempt. [Alan] Ladd is hard, bitter, and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”

[8] As a producer, Kastner was a notoriously ruthless bully who alienated many of the people he worked with. The story goes that a British film director was talking to a friend and said, “You’ll never believe who I just saw walking down the street. I saw—pardon my language—Elliott Kastner.”

[9] Modern adherents of political correctness might object to the terms used in the film for blacks and gays, but the language is faithful to the period. Terms more acceptable these days would’ve been incongruous in that 40s setting.

[10] One of Amthor’s henchmen was played by a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. Richards cast him because “I needed a tough guy and Stallone had the looks and ability.”

[11] The scene introducing Rampling in the film (Helen Grayle descending a circular staircase as she shoots a seductive look at Marlowe) was recreated as a shot-for-shot parody in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), the first entry in the cop genre satires by the team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrams, and David Zucker.

[12] There were some pans, of course. But Jay Cocks’ negative review for Time Magazine is particularly notable for its sheer pettiness. One of Cocks’ complaints was that the Grayle mansion, which Chandler described as “rather gray for California”, was red brick in the movie. He also objected to Marlowe’s line “What a world,” asserting that Chandler would have never used “such a hackneyed phrase.” However, the line “What a world” was in the novel, only it isn’t spoken by Marlowe, but by Marlowe’s semi-girlfriend Anne Riordan, a character who was cut from the movie.

[13] Please pardon the extraordinary length of this endnote, but in answer to my questions about his withdrawal from the Hollywood scene, Richards explained the circumstances to me in detail: “I found a script titled Would I Lie to You? It was optioned, and brought to my attention by Bob Kauffman, a comedy writer; one of his films was Love at First Bite. He felt I should develop the script, which later became Tootsie. I watched myself immerse into the project. I had heard stories from Ulu Grosbard, a director who had a major dispute with Dustin; friends from England, who told me hair-raising stories about the making of Agatha; and Phil Feldman, who was in charge of First Artists/Warner Brothers. Phil, who produced The Wild Bunch and was somebody I highly respected, had lunch with me and told me about the litigation that Dustin brought about and felt that, as a friend, he had to warn me. I told him “Thanks, but quite honestly Dustin would never let me direct Tootsie since he would probably want an Academy Award-winning director to deal with.” I stayed on and did as much as I could as producer of Tootsie. I then realized, unlike the 70s, it was getting tougher to get a film done, even though I had an original script that Bob Kauffman and I felt was going to be easy to get made. It was called Daniel of New York, about a hairdresser from Queens. At the time, we felt John Travolta was our first choice for the lead. We floundered when he didn’t commit immediately. Having four kids who were born in New York that I somehow kept out of the drug culture that invaded the high schools in Hollywood, I didn’t mind having more time with my family. I got a more than generous multi-year contract to direct Wilford Brimley in commercials for Quaker Oats. What was to be a two-year period turned out to be five. I watched my kids grow up in New York and was able to send them to Ivy League schools. I became part of a group of New York film people that included Sydney Lumet, Bob Fosse, Budd Schulberg, Sam Cohn, Peter Maas and Arthur Penn. We all had a certain feeling that didn’t include the idea of living in Hollywood. I have been living in New York and have continued to work steadily. I still enjoy being called upon to fill in for directors when needed. I have also continued to write and, at this time, I hope to bring to Broadway a play I have written about Hollywood called Turnaround.

Matsuda

Sadatsugu Matsuda – The Most Successful Director of Japan’s Golden Age of Cinema

Matsuda

The reception of Japanese cinema in the West has always existed within a confined space. Neither based on domestic commercial success nor on the reception of Japanese critics, what entered the Western canon of Japanese classics was chosen solely based on its availability on international film festivals. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi were singled out as Japan’s two greatest masters of cinema.

When in the 1970s the work of Yasujiro Ozu was discovered in the West, critics began to speak of “The Big Three of Japanese Cinema”. Without a doubt, all three of them, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, were indeed highly important directors whose oeuvre had a tremendous impact on the Japanese film industry.

Gro--e3

“The Big Three” – Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu

However, if one had consulted the critical consensus of Japanese reviewers at that time, another artist would without a doubt have emerged as Japan’s most celebrated director: Tadashi Imai, a left-leaning director of socially critical films who not only won more Kinema Junpo Awards (Back then, Japan’s most respected cinema award) than all of “The Big Three” but whose films enjoyed immense popularity among Japanese critics.

Of course, this narrow-mindedness only applies to what we might call “Mainstream Film Criticism”. The reception of Japanese cinema in the West has always been distinguished by a few brave individuals, including Donald Richie, Stuart Galbraith IV or Alexander Jacoby, who dared to look behind the alleged exoticism of Japanese cinema. Indeed, the process of discovering the great artists of Japanese cinema has not ended yet and continues on being as relevant and important as it always has been.

Yet, while more Japanese director receive their deserved praise based on the quality of their work, the reception of Japanese films based on their commercial success is still largely neglected. Despite of the early effort by Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson whose pioneering work, “The Japanese Cinema: Arts and Industry” (1959), attempted to recount not only Japan’s greatest cinematic achievements, but also the commercial framework behind them, few scholars since then have attempted to explore the industrial aspects of Japanese cinema.

While most producers granted their directors considerably more artistic freedom than their American counterparts had ever dared to, the style of a contract director was always also shaped by a producer-enforced company style. Thus, the Japanese film industry was as much distinguished by its artistic quality as by its mass production of films. In the end, it was exactly this mass production system coupled with the individual talents of its directors leading to the “Golden Age” of Japanese cinema. Something still neglected in Western circles where commercial success is often confused with artistic quality.

In the West, for example, the myth that Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (Shichinin no samurai, 1954) became Japan’s most successful film after its release in 1954 is still thoughtlessly adopted. It’s true that “Seven Samurai” was Japan’s most expensive film ever made. A record, however, which was broken a few years later when Kunio Watanabe’s nationalistic war epos “Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War” (Meiji tenno to nichiro daisenso, 1958) became not only Japan’s most expensive, but also highest-grossing film of all time.

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“The Emporer Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War” – A Nationalistic War Epos

Furthermore, the assessment that Akira Kurosawa was Japan’s commercially most successful filmmaker appears to be based more on wishful thinking than reality. In fact, not a single Kurosawa film occupied the first place at the annual Top Ten rankings during the 1950s. “Seven Samurai”, for example, ranked third behind Tatsuo Osone’s “Chushingura” adaptation and Hideo Oba’s third part of his highly regarded “What is your name?” trilogy. With box office earnings of ¥198 million Kurosawa’s next big blockbuster, “Throne of Blood”, was the second most successful film of the year 1957.

Much more successful, however, was Sadatsugu Matsuda’s “Port of Honor”, which, grossing more than ¥353 million, was the great hit of that year. Ultimately, Kuroswa may certainly have been a successful filmmaker, but based on the commercial success of his films, it would be wrong to describe the 1950s as “The Age of Kurosawa” or that of his company, Toho. On the contrary, the 1950s belonged to the Toei jidaigeki and its leading director, Sadatsugu Matsuda.

A director as prolific as he is unknown. Before somebody took the time to translate his name properly, he was known as either Sadaji Matsuda or Teiji Matsuda in the West. During his more than 40 years as a director he made at least 167 films, only 48 of whom are listed in the Imdb, “the most complete movie database in the world”.

In addition, he had his heyday in that period, in which the Toei Company conquered the Japanese film market with their trademark Toei goraku. A genre that is passionately despised by most critics. In 1959, Donald Richie, for example, described the audience for such films as having “no idea whatever of the meaning of the words quality or intelligence (…).”

This writing marks the first attempt to deal with Matsuda’s oeuvre. While Sadatsugu Matsuda could hardly be described as an artist, his unprecedented successful career shall here be the criterion for a reassessment of his work. Matsuda was a director whose career always remained closely connected to his studio, who never developed a signature style and dutifully churned out every film assigned to him by his film studio. A classic company man, which was precisely the reason why he became the most successful filmmakers of the 1950s.

Who was Sadatsugu Matsuda? Matsuda was born in 1906 in Kyoto. An illegitimate son of Shozo Makino, often called “The Father of Japanese Film”. During the early 20th century, Makino’s kyugeki, primitive historical films who closely imitated the stylistics of the Kabuki theater, gained huge popularity with the Japanese public.

Shozo Makino (1878 - 1929)

Shozo Makino (1878 – 1929)

The main actor of these film, Matsunosuke Onoe, was subsequently named the first great star of Japanese cinema. In the 1920s, Makino ended his collaboration with the aged Onoe. He founded his own film studio, “Makino Educational Film Studios”, and became a notable avantgarde producer, who launched the careers of major stars like Tsumasburo Bando, Chiezo Kataoka or Ryunosuke Tsukigata. In the beginning, however, Makino’s production company was poor and couldn’t even afford proper staff or equipment.

Thus, Makino’s son Masahiro and his daughter Tomoko became prime actors in the early days of “Makino Educational Film Studios”. After having graduated from junior high school, Sadatsugu Matsuda also joined his father’s production company as a camera assistant. In 1925, he was promoted to full-fledged cinematographer and shot films for Makino contract directors like Buntaro Futagawa, Mokushi Katsumi or Saichiro Matsumoto before he changed profession and became a motion picture director for his father’s company in 1928.

Shozo Makino and Tomoko Makino (1907 - 1984)

Shozo Makino and Tomoko Makino (1907 – 1984)

Like his father, Matsuda specialized in the helming of period features, often starring youth idol Toichiro Negishi (1899 – ?). These films were modelled on the success of the shinkokugeki (“New National Drama”), an important theater troup which had given Shozo Makino the impetus to revolutionize the period film with more cinematic techniques and lightning-quick sword fights. But Matsuda was also adept at comedy, directing films like “The Goronbo’s Story” (Muriyari Sanzengoku, 1929), said to have been an effective combination of nonsensical comedy and period drama.

Nevertheless, his work was somewhat overshadowed by that of his half-brother Masahiro Makino (1908 – 1993). Having been a noted child actor since age four, Masahiro had become a director for his father’s company in 1926. He teamed up with screenwriter Itaro Yamagami and cinematographer Minoru Miki to create many praised masterpieces of jidaigeki. Their films “Samurai Town, Story One: Beautiful Quarry” (Roningai: Daiichiwa Uusukushiki emono, 1928) and “Beheading Place” (Kubi no za, 1929) won consecutive number one spots in Kinema Junpo’s annual Top Ten ranking.

Around the same time, Matsuda met Chikueda, sometimes also credited as Tsukie, Matsuura (1907 – 1999), a talented Makino actress who had performed so viciously what could have been Japanese cinema’s the first female fight scene in Masahiro Makino’s “Sozenji Baba” (1928). Matsuura and Matsuda got engaged and, in 1932, married.

By then, Shozo Makino had succumbed to a heart failure at age 50. One year before, Makino’s company was already dwindling having experienced the walk-out of several of its biggest names, among them Chiezo Kataoka and Chozaburo Arashi (later known as Kanjuro Arashi). With Makino’s death in 1929, the company kept struggling for four more years and then promptly went out-of-business.

After having completed Makino’s last, unfinished film, “Raiden” (1928) starring his own half-brother, Masahiro, in the lead role, Matsuda left the sinking ship and became a freelancer directing films for companies such as Nikkatsu, Teikoku Cinema and Shinko Cinema. Today, most of his prewar films seem to be incomplete or lost. An 18 minutes fragment of “Raiden” remains the only extant legacy of Matsuda’s days at his father’s company.

"Raiden" - The actor to the left is Masahiro Makino.

“Raiden” – The actor to the left is Masahiro Makino.

During the war, Matsuda directed several propaganda pieces, however, his career didn’t fully flower until after the war. In 1945, Japan surrendered and fell into the hands of the American occupation forces under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur. During the years of occupation, jidaigeki were outlawed as remnants of Japanese feudalism. Period film stars had to trade the sword of a tateyuki (“heroic leading man”) for the gun of a brave private investigator or fierce detective.

Ironically, it was in this environment when Sadatsugu Matsuda made his first breakthrough as a director. In 1946, he directed the first “Tarao Bannai” film. Until 1960 no less than ten sequels should follow, eight of them directed by Matsuda, each of them a smash hit at the box-office. Indeed, during the early postwar years “Tarao Bannai” literally dominated the industry.

Starring Chiezo Kataoka, already a major jidaigeki star since the late 1920s, as heroic private investigator Tarao Bannai, the detective series centered around the adventures of the title character who fought crime with seven different disguises and superior marksmanship. While the individual films in the series may be largely forgotten, the character of Tarao Bannai itself remains popular in Japan to this day and has enjoyed countless references in comic books, animated programs or tv series.

Tarao Bannai

Tarao Bannai – The Man With Seven Faces!

While being immensely successful, “Tarao Bannai” also proved itself to be crucial for the path of Matsuda’s later career. In 1950, Chiezo Kataoka, having become the greatest star of the 1940s, co-founded Toei Kabushiki-gaisha, better known under its abbreviation of Toei, soon to become Japan’s leading motion picture company. After having directed four “TaraoBannai” films for Daiei, Matsuda was invited by Kataoka to join him to his new production company.

Already being an experienced veteran journeyman director, Matsuda enjoyed a certain star status from the beginning. While directing more “Tarao Bannai” films for Toei, he emerged as studio’s leading director of Toei’s trademark jidaigeki, especially if they starred the seasoned jidaigeki giants Utaemon Ichikawa and Chiezo Kataoka. During the following decade, Matsuda should direct hit after hit seeming almost unstoppable at the box-office.

In 1955, he achieved his first number one spot at the annual box-office results. “Warriors of Ako” (Ako roshi: Ten no maki, chi no maki, 1955), a retelling of Japan’s famous legend of the 47 ronin, earned more than ¥313 million in revenues, more than ¥100 million more than Nobuo Nakamura’s “A Tale of Shuzenji” (Shuzenji monogatari, 1955), the second highest-grossing film of the year standing at “measly” ¥183 million. Until the end of the 1950s, six more films were among the highest-grossing of their respective year, among them especially his acclaimed “Jirocho” trilogy has to be mentioned.

With Kataoka portraying Jirocho, the eponymous medieval gambler and oyabun (“yakuza boss”) of the Tokaido road, all films in the series were tremendously successful. The aforementioned first part, “Port of Honor” (Ninkyo shimizu minato, 1957) was the only film to surpass “Throne of Blood” in revenues, part two, “A Chivalrous Spirit” (Ninkyo tokaido, 1958), ranked seventh at the annual Top Ten and “Road of Chivalry” (Ninkyo nakasendo, 1960) once again became the most successful Japanese film of the year.

port of honor

Chiezo Kataoka as Jirochi in “Port of Honor”

At the end of the decade, Matsuda’s six Top Ten hits alone had grossed over two billion yen, at least one billion more than those of every other director. However, as Toei’s bread and butter, Matsuda was also put in charge of directing the company’s most viable film series. Thus, the director also shot four of the five film of matinee idol Ryutaro Otomo’s “Tange Sazen” series (1958 – 1962), more “Tarao Bannai” films and all eight films of the “Shingo” series (1959 – 1963) starring Hashizo Okawa as young samurai Shingo Aoi. From their respective number of sequels, one can safely assume that all of these film series were highly successful.

Furthermore, at a breakneck pace of roughly ten films each year, Matsuda emerged not only as a constant hit maker, but also as one the most productive directors of the decade. Thus, it can be claimed that it was indeed Matsuda, this forgotten and neglected company man, who was the financially most successful director of the 1950s, “The Golden Age of Japanese Cinema”.

The reason for this can be attributed to Toei’s typical company product. After having opened its gates, Toei soon specialized in producing low-budget jidaigeki. Toei jidaigeki were mass-produced on a weekly basis, mostly shot in less than two weeks and were intended as lightweight family entertainment completely lacking the grim atmosphere, violent sword play and thoughtfulness of more earnest genre colleagues.

Instead, the usual Toei jidaigeki is distinguished by rather loose plot threads, low-brow humor and borrowing its formulaic narrative from famous feudal tales of Japanese folklore. Indeed, with its reliance on clearly formulated black-and-white drawing of their central characters and a glorification of feudal concepts of honor, the Toei jidaigeki was, in the words of film scholar Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, “(…) an atavistic return to kyugeki (…) a technologically advanced version of the primitive cinema exemplified by the films of kyugeki superstar Matsunosuke Onoe.”

The production method of the Toei jidaigeki is also noteworthy for abolishing the star status of the director in favor of an actor-based system. True, Toei also employed their fair share of prestige directors, most importantly Tadashi Imai and legendary pioneer Tomu Uchida, yet these filmmakers made celebrated festival favorites and rarely touched the world of the Toei jidaigeki.

Instead, the usual Toei jidaigeki director was an anonymous hack, his style strictly formulated by company policy. The actors were the true ticket sellers of Toei. This was exactly the reason for Toei’s domineering status at the box-office. With lucrative deals, the company lured in some of the most famous of all jidaigeki stars, as well as countless promising newcomers on their way to the top.

Seasoned audience members could marvel at the magnifying presence of such legends as Utaemon Ichikawa, Chiezo Kataoka, Denjiro Okochi or Ryunosuke Tsukigata, often starring together in one film to provide several all-star Toei features every month.

Directed by seasoned genre directors such as Matsuda, Masahiro Makino or Yasushi Sasaki, these films usually functioned as the main feature of a weekly double or triple bill and ensured the attendance of the older generations drawn into the seats by the presence of their favorite childhood heroes.

Younger Toei aficionados stayed for the lower half of the double bill constituted by one or two one-hour long serials. These so-called Toei gorakuhen (“Toei Entertainment Edition”) served to introduce promising young matinee idols such as pop queen Hibari Misora, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Hashizo Okawa or Chiyunosuke Azuma who soon enjoyed a cult-like following by millions of teenage girls.

Even the most hackneyed of Toei’s program features usually made their money back with a large margin of profit. Thus, despite being arguably Japan’s most successful filmmaker of all-time, most of Matsuda’s films were low-budget features.

Even his more prestigious efforts usually lacked far behind in scale than comparable prestige pictures of other production companies. To underline this great irony of Matsuda’s career, being both the most important director of his studio and representing the most humble of all company man, we have to take a look at Matsuda’s probably most significant picture, Japan’s first feature-length widescreen film in color.

A pioneering production which at the same time was the background of a fierce race between two competing studios, Toei and Shintoho. A few years earlier Shintoho had begun the epochal production of “The Emporer Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War” supposed to be not only most the expensive film ever made, but also Japan’s first widescreen film.

Before the production could wrap up, however, another feature premiered on the big screen. A slight comedy about a wakasama (“young lord”) pretending to be a commoner and finding the love of his live in the process, having the unassuming title “The Lord Takes A Bride” (Otorijo no hanayome, 1957). It was the work of Sadatsugu Matsuda and Japan’s first full-color, feature-length widescreen film.

Lord

“The Lord Takes a Bride” – Japan’s most forgettable milestone.

Eventually, Shin Toho’s film should become the highest-grossing Japanese film of the 1950s, but Toei could collect all the credit for pioneering the new technique. Toei, the richest studio in Japan, had won the race against Shintoho, poorest of Japan’s “Big Six”, by producing the most forgettable milestone of cinema ever conceived.

While Hollywood’s first widescreen film had its hero come to terms with having witnessed the death of Jesus, the hero of “The Lord Takes A Bride” faces his biggest obstacle when confronted with his lovers affinity for squid, whose taste the young lord detests.

Sadatsugu Matsuda certainly was a giant of cinema, one who made mostly low-budget features. Millions saw his films, yet nobody took the time to remember his name. His style ensured certain success, yet was solely that of his studio. Had he been a producer, he would have been rich, but as a director he was determined to be all but forgotten.

Despite of these admittedly harsh words, Matsuda was anything but a bad director. Even his most forgettable films were at least entertaining and always well-crafted. Occasionally, he also made good films, sometimes even great ones. One is “Ako Roshi” (1961), yet another adaptation of Japan’s “Chushingura” and arguably Matsuda’s masterpiece.

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“Ako Roshi” – One of the best retellings of the old story.

Shot in the most beautiful of color photography, written by excellent screenwriters Kaneto Shindo and Hideo Oguni, elaborately mounted and beautifully acted by a simply astonishingly large all-star cast, “Ako Roshi” grossed ¥435 million, making it the second highest-grossing film of 1961. This time, however, it was Kurosawa who took the first spot at the annual box-office Top Ten.

Indeed, in 1961 and 1962 two Kurosawa films became the highest-grossing features of their respective year, while Sadatsugu Matsuda had to be satisfied with the second respectively third spot. In the end, the early 1960s marked the true beginning of the age of Kurosawa and the end of the Toei jidaigeki.

The political climate in Japan had changed. Student demonstrations resulted in violent clashes with the police, terrorist groups, both left and right, emerged and threw Japan in a state of utter confusion. Toei’s teenage audience had finally grown up and began rallying in the streets.

Witnessing the declining success of their trademark company product, Toei tried to counter the audience’s demand for fresh and controversial material with the production of several zonkoku jidaigeki. Modelled on such milestones as “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Harakiri” (1962) and shot in somber black and white, these so-called “cruel period films” tried to lure the audience with gritty and violent depictions of the injustices of feudal Japan.

Their production marked in many ways a renaissance of the Toei jidaigeki. Seeing their star status in imminent danger, actors put more effort in their work, while younger Toei directors took the opportunity to escape their fate as providers of lightweight matinee fare, which often resulted in excellent performances and well-crafted films.

But it was once again Sadatsugu Matsuda who delivered the defining work of that era. Starring Ryutaro “Tange Sazen” Otomo, he directed “Duel of Blood and Sand” (Chi to suna no ketto, 1963), which surprisingly managed to be both highly entertaining entertainment with great action scenes and clever plot twists as well as being a grim and subversive study of feudal hypocrisy, modelled on Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”.

In the end, however, Matsuda rather chose the benefits of retirement instead of becoming part of this new mode of jidaigeki production.

Sadatsugu Matsuda in his later years.

Sadatsugu Matsuda in his later years of life.

In 1969, he made a shortlived attempt at restarting his career directing the first two “Mekura no Oichi” films, a notorious “Zatoichi” rip-off, but then left the world of cinema forever. He died in 2003 at the venerable age of 97.

Sadatsugu Matsuda was a hack, an unsung craftsmen and nonethelessly remains a giant of Japanese cinema. By the end of the 1960s, his Top Ten entries alone had broken the 3 billion yen mark, a record which should not be broken until the 1970s.

Acclaimed directors such as Mizoguchi, Imai, Kurosawa or Ozu may have directed masterpieces, but it remains ever more important to note that their “Golden Age of Japanese Cinema” wouldn’t have been possible without the backing of the big studios, which in turn were fully dependant on the efficiency of their anonymous company men whose work was the fuel that kept the machines running and brought “The Golden Age of Japanese Cinema” to life.

I’d like to thank my friend Daniel Warland for creating the featured image of this article as well as Matsuda Film Productions for providing their wonderful “Silent Film Database” without whose impressive insights into Japanese silent cinema this article wouldn’t have been possible.

Pablo Knote is a German-based critic and researcher on Japanese cinema. In 2012, he founded www.nippon-kino.net, Germany’s largest website solely dedicated to the classic Japanese cinema. He also writes for www.easternkicks.com and www.tasteofcinema.com.

Never-Say-Never-Again-James-Bond-Sean-Connery-Kim-Basinger-007

Bond is Back! Sean Connery’s Farewell to 007

  NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN [BR / US / GER 1983]     

With the recent on-line release of the trailer for Spectre, Eon Productions’ 24th James Bond thriller, the Bond franchise is once again in the news. (Eon Productions is the producing company established in 1961 by producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman expressly for the Bond pictures. “Eon” is an acronym for “everything or nothing.”) The trailer indicates that Spectre will be yet another two-hour plus cinematic marathon of gunfights, car chases, and lots and lots of stuff that gets, in the immortal words of SCTV’s Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, “blow’d up good, blow’d up real good!” It is yet another attempt to outdo Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, which is by far not only the best blockbuster of the James Bond series with an authentic feel of a live casino. It is also the first Eon’s Bond film in 44 years to use SPECTRE (acronym for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), the sinister top secret international organization that served as Bond’s nemesis in the first seven Bond films from Dr. No (1962) to Diamonds Are Forever (1971). And therein lies a tale. Casino player community is incresing as they are watching movies and getting inspired for playing casino games. Well y8 Game are getting more popular in the casino players.

bond_2312061b Sean Connery as James Bond

In 1961, Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, based his latest Bond novel Thunderball on an unproduced screenplay he’d co-written with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham without their permission. The two men sued Fleming for plagiarism and, as part of the court’s judgment, the film rights to Thunderball went to McClory. When Broccoli and Saltzman licensed the rights to Thunderball in 1965 for the fourth entry in their franchise, they agreed to McClory’s condition that the remake rights revert back to him after a decade.

Never-Say-Never-Again-1983-James-Bond-007-Sean-Connery-brbara-carrera-3Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush

When McClory started seeking to take advantage of reacquiring those rights by producing a rival Bond film franchise, a series of protracted court battles with Broccoli and Saltzman began that would stretch on for almost a decade. One of the upshots of these legal proceedings was Eon losing the rights to use SPECTRE or its diabolical leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld in their Bond pictures, necessitating a last-minute rewrite of the script for the 1977 Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me to remove references to both. (In 2013, the Broccoli family finally settled with McClory’s estate, giving them the right to bring SPECTRE back into the franchise.) McClory’s bid to remake Thunderball probably wouldn’t have seen fruition if Sean Connery, who first played Bond for Eon Productions, hadn’t become a major participant in the project.

nsna02Sean Connery as James Bond

Even to this day, Connery is still considered by many fans of the movies and novels to be the only real James Bond. Although the Bond series deservedly made a major box office star out of Connery, it’s well known that he grew to despise the franchise that he owed his success to. But unlike the way that Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett became sick of playing (and being identified as) Sherlock Holmes, Connery’s distaste wasn’t directed at the character of Bond himself. Rather, he became tired of being under the thumbs of Broccoli and Saltzman. Indeed, Connery retained enough affection for Bond that he wanted to bid farewell to the role on his own terms. That opportunity came his way in 1983 when Warner Brothers and producer Jack Schwartzman joined forces with McClory to produce Never Say Never Again, as the long-planned remake of Thunderball was retitled to avoid confusion with the original. (The title was suggested by Connery’s wife, inspired by his oft-quoted declaration to never play Bond again.) The result was the first serious James Bond movie not made by Eon Productions, (The less said about the other non-Eon Bond film, Charles K. Feldman’s disastrous 1967 spoof Casino Royale, the better.)

NSNA-Dinner-SuitKim Basinger as Domino & Sean Connery as Bond

That Never Say Never Again was made at all was a testament to the tenaciousness of McClory and then-novice Schwartzman, who produced the film for Warner Brothers. (Warners had become interested in the project after marketing research for their own Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry series indicated that audiences tired of the increasingly campy Roger Moore Bond films would gladly pay to see Connery return to the role.) Despite the ongoing court conflicts with Eon Productions that continued all the way through the making of the movie, Schwartzman managed to put together an outstanding filmmaking team that included director Irvin Kershner (fresh off of the first Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back), screenwriters Lorenzo Semple Jr. (TV’s Batman), Dick Clement (TV’s The Avengers), and Ian La Frenais, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and composer Michel Legrand, who also collaborated with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on the catchy title song sung by former Brazil ’66 chanteuse and current Mrs. Herb Alpert, Lani Hall.

24d220cdff16433ea1b43b8569c1eeeaKlaus Maria Brandauer as Largo & Kim Basinger as Domino

From the mid-80s and mid-90s, while it was still being distributed by Warner Brothers, Never Say Never Again was the most accessible of the Bond pictures, frequently turning up on local television stations’ weekend matinees. But then, after being bought from Warners by MGM and licensed by Sony as leverage for their own alternate Bond franchise, the rights to Never Say Never Again ended up belonging to the Broccoli family and Eon Productions, who wished the film had never been made in the first place. A “Collector’s Edition” was issued on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009, but it is now much more expensive to purchase than any of the other Bond pictures. (It can, however, be rented on-line at Amazon as an “Instant Video” for between $9.99 and $12.99.) It is not inconceivable that the availability of Never Say Never Again will become increasingly scarce as Eon Productions tries to minimize the film’s existence with all the determination of those in the USSR who supervised the revisionism of Russia’s post-revolution history.

x4jb88Edward Fox as M

Which is a shame because, despite the plot being a rehash of Thunderball (SPECTRE hijacks a couple of nuclear missiles from NATO and blackmails the world with them), Never Say Never Again has many qualities unique to this particular Bond film, not the least of which is Connery’s dry performance. His relaxed, laid-back attitude reflected that he was obviously enjoying himself far more than when he was working for Broccoli and Saltzman. Connery’s good spirits were especially evident in his willingness to indulge in some depreciating humor about his age. And, at 52, he looked much better than when he gave his last performance for Eon Production twelve years earlier in Diamonds Are Forever. (The 70s-style sideburns he was forced to wear in Diamonds didn’t help.) Speaking of Connery’s age, it was Never Say Never Again that first introduced the concept of Bond being looked down upon by his superiors as a politically incorrect anachronism. (While this became de rigueur in the later Bond films with Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, Connery’s maturity made the idea far more credible than it did with Brosnan and Craig at ages 42 and 38, respectively, when they made their Bond debuts.)

gratuitousAlec McCowen as Q

Although Never Say Never Again had a limited budget that was only a fraction of what Eon spent on their Bond pictures,[1] the filmmakers, particularly Kershner (who actually bragged about the tiny budget in his DVD commentary), made the proverbial lemonade out of the situation. Instead of making the film a wall-to-wall series of spectacular action set-pieces, the emphasis was more on characterization and suspense, not unlike the original Fleming novels. The scriptwriters also had the wit to milk some humor from the miniscule budget, most notably in the character of MI-6 weapons master Q, played here by that superb British character actor, Alec McCowen. Unlike Desmond Llewelyn’s Q in the Eon films, McCowen’s Q, nicknamed “Algy” (short for Algernon), not only doesn’t have a state-of-the-art workshop capable of manufacturing all manner of futuristic weapons and gizmos, but the weapons he’s barely able to cobble together in his spartan, underheated basement (a joke on Thatcher’s austerity measures) aren’t even foolproof. In fact, the most reliable weapon he arms 007 with, a watch that doubles as a laser beam, is actually a Russian-made device provided by a defecting agent. (McCowen also has the movie’s single best line when he welcomes Bond back into action: “Good to see you, Mr. Bond. Things have been awfully dull around here. Bureaucrats running the old place, everything done by the book. Now you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence.”)

max_von_sydow2Max von Sydow as Blofeld 

The movie’s impressive trio of villains are portrayed by celebrated performers representing three different nationalities. The great Swedish actor Max von Sydow excels as the movies’ best Blofeld, head of SPECTRE. (With his three-piece suit and natty bow tie, von Sydow’s Blofeld has a definite sartorial advantage over the previous Blofelds, thanks to Broccoli and Saltzman’s inexplicable preference for dressing their head villains in Nehru jackets.) Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer plays psychotic billionaire philanthropist Maximilian Largo with a neurotic vulnerability reminiscent of Peter Lorre[2] that makes the character both scary and poignant. And Nicaraguan actress Barbara Carrera practically steals the show with her over-the-top take on the role of ruthless assassin Fatima Blush, which she plays like a cross between a film noir femme fatale and Disney’s Cruella De Vil.

basinger-never-say-neverBernie Casey as Felix Leiter, Sean Connery as Bond & Kim Basinger as Domino

Other notable performances include Bernie Casey as Bond’s American CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (the first time a black actor had been cast in the part), Edward Fox as Bond’s prissy, aristocratic snob of a boss M, and comedian Rowan Atkinson making his film debut as bumbling British consulate Nigel Small-Fawcett. Only 29-year-old Kim Basinger, playing Largo’s naïve mistress Domino, was out of her league among these veterans, but in all fairness, it should be pointed out that her performance is no better or worse than the average acting by a “Bond girl.”[3]

Ultimately, watching Never Say Never Again is an entirely different experience than with the “official” Bond films. Rather than Eon Productions’ seemingly Red Bull-induced primal adrenalin rush of non-stop thrills, Never Say Never Again is more like kicking back and enjoying an affectionate reunion sharing drinks (vodka martinis, of course, shaken not stirred) with an old and treasured friend.

 


[1] By most reports, Spectre went seriously over-budget to the tune of $350 million, making it by far the most expensive Bond picture ever.

[2] Technically, Peter Lorre was the very first Bond villain, having played the role of La Chiffre in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale which was the pilot episode of an American live television anthology called Climax!, the first dramatization of a Fleming novel. Today, the broadcast is regarded as a rather campy historical curio, especially since Bond (played by Barry Nelson) was rewritten as an American intelligence agent known to his colleagues as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond.”

[3] Of course, the most talented actress to play a “Bond girl” was Diana Rigg, formerly Mrs. Emma Peel on The Avengers, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Unfortunately, cast opposite George Lazenby, the least talented actor ever cast as Bond, the now Dame Rigg was virtually acting in a vacuum.

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