Tag Archives: Les Diaboliques

Medusa Featured

What I’ve Been Watching Lately: Wilder, Truffaut, Forsyth, Peckinpah

Welcome to a new monthly column here at World Cinema Paradise called “What I’ve Been Watching Lately.” I’ve been loathe to repurpose my DVD and Blu-ray reviews from my writing day-job over at DVD Talk, so you’ll see none of those reviews here. Instead, the focus is going to be the other, more niche titles, including many from outside the confines of region A Blu and region 1 DVD.

And so, in the immortal words of Jackie Gleason, away we go…

Ballad in Blue

Ballad in Blue (1964)

This intriguing little British film, directed by actor Paul Henreid, stars R&B icon Ray Charles, playing himself. In London as part of a European tour, Charles visits a special school for blind children where he meets David (Piers Bishop), a young lad who lost his sight six months earlier. He’s trying hard to adjust, but his overprotective single mother, Peggy (Mary Peach, Scrooge), treats him like a baby. Charles, sympathetic to the boy’s plight, gently intervenes, hiring her alcoholic pianist boyfriend, Steve (Prime Suspect’s Tom Bell), as a new arranger. Though not quite as kinetic as Richard Lester’s contemporaneous Beatles movies, Ballad in Blue nonetheless has much outstanding footage of Ray Charles at the peak of his game, and he’s not a bad actor, either. Some find his relationship with the (white) kid cloying, but I found it straightforward and emotionally honest, plus the movie ends on an unexpectedly but intelligently ambiguous note. Network’s Blu-ray of this black-and-white production looks great though, curiously, it’s presented in 1.37:1 format. The tight framing of the musical numbers especially suggests it just may have been intended to be seen that way, though 1.66:1 widescreen would seem more likely. Regardless, there’s precious little extra headroom and visually works well enough in this format. (Network, Region B)

High Road to China

High Road to China (1983)

A Hong-Kong-U.S.-Yugoslavian co-production, High Road to China was dismissed as a mediocre Raiders of the Lost Ark imitator, which this most definitely is not. Sure, the reason it probably got made had something to due with Raiders’ success, to say nothing of the fact that Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck came within a hare’s breath of playing Indiana Jones. But the movie is nothing more or less than an old-fashioned historical adventure that one easily imagines would have looked exactly the same if the Spielberg-Lucas collaboration had never existed. The plot has a society heiress (Bess Armstrong) reluctantly hiring a hard-drinking World War I flying ace (Selleck) to search for her father, last seen somewhere between Afghanistan and China. Stylistically, nothing about the film resembles Raiders: it’s more methodically paced, has a lushly romantic John Barry score closer to his Somewhere in Time music than John Williams’s Indiana Jones themes, and better characters. There’s a nice scene, for instance, where the audience learns that the pilot’s drinking is the result of having to shoot down pilots barely out of britches at the end of the war, young kids whose frightened faces he can’t forget. And the cast is good: Robert Morley, Brian Blessed, Jack Weston (nicely underplaying his comedy relief part), and a nearly unrecognizable Wilford Brimley. On Blu-ray in Region B from Mediumrare, in a clean, satisfying widescreen transfer.


Fedora (1978)

Billy Wilder’s penultimate film nearly bookends an earlier triumph, Sunset Blvd. (1950), even to the point of starring William Holden and featuring some of that same wonderfully cynical narration. Adapted from a novella by actor-turned-writer Tom Tryon, the plot has Holden playing a desperate, aging producer trying to coax a Garbo-esque reclusive screen icon (Marthe Keller) to agree to star in his proposed independent production. He tracks her down to an island villa near Corfu but her handlers – a Polish countess (Hildegard Knef), personal assistant (Frances Sternhagen), and physician (José Ferrer) – won’t let him anywhere near her. Reviled at the time of its release, Fedora’s admirers has been growing steadily through the years, though they’ve tended to go overboard in the other direction. It’s a bitter, funny movie on several levels with many fine moments, but casting problems fatally wound its potential. The movie has a lot of signature Tryon surprises that don’t work. Wilder originally wanted Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway for the roles played by Knef and Keller; the movie plays a lot better imagining them in those parts. (Meryl Streep would also have worked quite well in the latter role.) Wilder realized too late that the Swiss-born Keller and the German-born Knef neither sounded nor looked alike, critical to the movie’s plot, nor could they easily be understood, so he had both performances dubbed by a third actress, Inga Bunsch, for the English-language release. (Keller dubbed both voices for the French version while Knef did double-duty on the German; it would be interesting to see if those play any better.) The results, sadly, are almost ruinous, though as he often did, Holden’s as-usual terrific performance nearly holds everything together, albeit like sticky, past-its-expiration-date glue. Olive Films’ Region A Blu-ray, using a high-def master restored in Germany, looks great.

Truffaut Collection

Shoot the Pianist (1960) / The Soft Skin (1964)

I’ve been slowly making my way through Artificial Eye’s The François Truffaut Collection, an incredible bargain featuring eight great and/or overlooked films, all stunning in high-def. Most I’ve not seen in 30-plus years. In the case of Shoot the Pianist (better known, at least to me, as Shoot the Piano Player), the first time I saw that it was panned-and-scanned with burned-in English subtitles, cut off on both edges of the frame, and using white font, often against white wall backgrounds. I think I caught maybe 40% of the dialogue. Singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour stars as withdrawn Parisian dive bar pianist Charlie Kohler, who becomes an accessory to his criminal brothers’ activities. Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress who loves Charlie and aware of his past identity as an acclaimed classical pianist, likewise becomes tangled in their web of crime. In The Soft Skin, Jean Desailly stars as Pierre Lachenay, a famous writer and literary editor popular on the European lecture circuit. On a trip to Portugal he meets and falls in love with a beautiful airline hostess named Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). As he’s married with a young daughter, Pierre struggles to keep his relationship secret and, despite his best efforts, Nicole becomes impatient and hurt living as the “other woman.” Like Shoot the Pianist, The Soft Skin was not a success when it was new – the theme of this month’s column, apparently – and the latter was even reportedly booed at Cannes. One suspects contemporary critics found its story too simple and clichéd. I, however, thought it riveting and highly suspenseful. Reportedly a lot of it was based on Truffaut’s own infidelities, including with Dorléac, and it’s adult, intimate, and immediate as few films today are. Region B.

Killer Elite

The Killer Elite (1975)

Sam Peckinpah’s 1970s filmography runs hot and cold with this writer. I find Junior Bonner, with Steve McQueen, unjustly unheralded but The Getaway, also with McQueen, repulsive and boring. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is better than its reputation, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid far worse than its. Cross of Iron is simply a mess with little of interest, Convoy is empty-headed but entertaining. Amidst all this is The Killer Elite, with James Caan as a corporate security man charged with jobs the CIA won’t touch, much less acknowledge. Partner Robert Duvall goes rogue, shooting Caan in the elbow and knee in a deliberately career-ending hit, but Caan is determined to recover enough so that he might track down this ex-partner who betrayed him. The movie’s first third, clinically dramatizing the shooting, various operations, and Caan’s grueling attempts at recovery are riveting, but the picture slowly loses its way and, by the anachronistic blend of samurai and chopsocky for its climax, is merely ridiculous if entertaining escapism. (Not helping matters is Arthur Hill, who spent virtually his entire career playing good guys in positions of authority who turns out to be the surprise bad guy. It stopped working when audiences picked up that Hill always played the surprise bad guy.) Twilight Time’s region A Blu-ray, however, looks stupendous, and includes a rare treat: Peckinpah’s Noon Wine, a featurette-length adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, shot on one-inch (analog) video for television in 1966.

Gregory's 2 Girls

Gregory’s 2 Girls (1999)

After enjoying Second Sight’s excellent Region B Blu-ray of an old favorite, Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981), I picked up the British DVD of Forsyth’s barely-released sequel, filmed eighteen years later. Now pushing 40, Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair, still delightful) remains single and, effectively, is still in high school, now a politically conscious English teacher. His mantra, “Don’t spectate, participate” prompts 16-year-old soccer player Frances (Carly McKinnon), for whom Gregory has had sexual fantasies, to confide in him. She’s convinced an old schoolmate of Gregory’s, millionaire electronics manufacturer Fraser Rowan (Dougray Scott), may be smuggling torture equipment to Third World governments. Fans that dearly loved Gregory’s Girl mostly hated the film. Some, undoubtedly, were put off by the film’s darker political themes, the idea that idyllic, ordinary suburban Scotland might secretly be contributing to tools of war. Others found Gregory’s attraction to Frances, one teetering precariously close to pedophilia, distasteful. But if Gregory’s 2 Girls lacks the original film’s sweet innocence, it also reflects a maturation on the part of writer-director Forsyth. It may not be as disarmingly entertaining as Gregory’s Girl, but it’s a very funny, intriguing film in its own right, making Forsyth’s fall from grace all the more unfathomable. It remains his last film to date. Region 2 (PAL).


Catacombs (1965)

The sixties were a kind of Golden Age for British thrillers. Merton Park Studios was cranking out as many as a dozen Edgar Wallace thrillers for Anglo-Amalgamated, while Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster penned some marvelous thrillers for Hammer. Sangster joked that all of his scripts were simple variations of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s seminal French thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), but Sangster’s were often very clever and admirably original. Conversely, the very entertaining and quite spooky Catacombs, directed by Gordon Hessler and adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from Jay Bennett’s novel, is a blatant gender-reversal of Les Diaboliques almost scene-for-scene. However, it’s so well done this reviewer didn’t connect the obvious dots until the film was almost over. A big part of its success is the performances: Gary Merrill as the henpecked husband, Georgina Cookson as the shrewish, possessively jealous wife, and a young Jane Merrow as Merrill’s step-daughter, caught between them. Like Clouzot’s film Catacombs is very nearly a horror film, with several impressively tense, genuinely creepy moments. How is it I had never even heard of this picture before, even under its U.S. release title, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die? Network’s Region 2 (PAL) release offers a good, widescreen transfer.

Medusa Touch

The Medusa Touch (1978)

Another Network title I had never seen before was this wild ride of movie; I knew the title and that Richard Burton starred but nothing else, really the best way to experience it. How could I have known that it’s a religious horror-disaster-science fiction-end of the world-political thriller, all in one? Co-produced by legendary editor Anne V. Coates, directed by Jack Gold, and adapted from Peter Van Greenaway’s novel, the film stars Burton as Morlar, a firebrand novelist obsessed with the idea that he’s been cursed with the ability to consciously and unconsciously cause people’s deaths. After he’s murdered (or is he?) a French police inspector, Brunel, (the great Lino Ventura) questions Morlar’s psychiatrist, Zonfeld (Lee Remick), who dismisses Morlar’s claims, though Brunel isn’t quite so sure. The all-star British cast includes Harry Andrews, Jeremy Brett, Michael Hordern, Gordon Jackson, Derek Jacobi, and many others. The region B Blu-ray looks fantastic and helps showcase the film’s impressive sets and one spectacularly realized special effects sequence done with miniatures. Kim Newman’s enlightening liner notes on this one-of-a-kind film provide essential background on novelist Greenaway. A real find.

Black Widow Featured

Duality in Bob Rafelson’s “Black Widow” (1987) – The American Detective Movie Where Both Cop and Criminal Are Women

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Bob Rafelson’s steamy 1987 thriller Black Widow is the rare Hollywood movie to feature females as both cop and killer, and surely the only one in which both heroine and villainess are bisexual women attracted to one another. (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques has two bisexual heroines who, like Black Widow’s, share a man and scheme to get rid of one another, but it is French and neither is a detective.) A cop who desires his suspect has a long tradition (Laura). Criminals, drawn to danger, sometimes fall for the detectives who are pursuing them. But the attraction is usually heterosexual, and the cop doesn’t usually sleep with his quarry’s boyfriend. Also, although lawmen sometimes face a choice of whether to save a villain’s endangered life (The Untouchables), the criminal doesn’t usually rescue the cop who is chasing him, as in Black Widow’s scuba diving mishap, where the murderess shares her oxygen with the detective as they ascend to the ocean’s surface, their bare legs undulating together erotically.

Rafelson uses his heroines’ similarity to set up a duality; they are the same sex but on opposite sides of the law. Through story structure in the screenplay by Ronald Bass, and through staging, cinematography, production design, costume design and hairstyling, Rafelson focuses on his heroines’ duality: besides their sex, they share salient character traits, and besides being law enforcer and law breaker, they have diametrically opposed styles, appearances and love lives. Midway through the film, when they finally meet, Rafelson develops this duality further; while they are physically attracted to one another they are simultaneously trying to incarcerate one another. Their differences diminish as the plain-Jane detective imitates the sultry black widow in appearance, behavior and tactics.

Using a parallel structure, the movie demonstrates the similarities and differences of Justice Department employee Alex Barnes and the seductress/murderess whose real name we never learn, but whose first alias is Catharine Petersen. Debra Winger, who had been playing the love interest or leading lady in films such as Terms of Endearment and An Officer and a Gentleman, has an unbecoming hairstyle and wardrobe as Alex. Theresa Russell plays the ravishing chameleon Catherine, who tailors her personality and appearance to tantalize each victim. Both are attractive, troubled young women who are dedicated to, and excel at, at their occupations. Both are out to “catch” someone, both engage in long preparation and extensive research, and both take on multiple false identities. But while Alex is frumpy – she wears baggy clothes and doesn’t bother to tame her out-of control hair – and celibate, Catharine is sleek, chic, well-coiffed, and well-groomed. She wears fitted, expensive-looking outfits, and she is always luring, marrying, or bumping off a lover.

In the film’s first scenes, set at night, we see Catharine, elegant and poised, applying eyeliner, then putting on sunglasses. She takes a helicopter, then a limo, from a plane to her home, the setting where she pursues her occupation of seducing and killing. The swank apartment has a black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the hall floor. Next we see Alex, disheveled and tense, rushing to work at her desk job at the Department of Justice. Wearing sunglasses, like Catharine, she passes through the lobby, which has a black-and white checkerboard pattern on the floor. These scenes demonstrate immediately some of the characters’ similarities and differences. We learn that Catharine romances and kills without getting caught, while Alex works compulsively, and never goes on a date.
Later Catharine, now sassy in red curls and a clingy, emerald-green wrap dress, goes to have lunch with her new husband, a Dallas toy manufacturer (Dennis Hopper). Sitting at his desk and looking at a cluster of beeping and blinking glass tubes, he is on the phone scolding the toy’s inventor for writing confusing directions: “I don’t know how to read the instructions. I’m only five fucking years old.” When he teases his wife by telling the caller she looks a little scruffy today, Catharine, seated cross-legged in a chair on the other side of his desk, pouts and slides her slinky skirt up her thigh, proving him wrong. A few scenes later Alex, going to work, forgets she’s carrying a gun, and a security cop detains her in the lobby and escorts her to her boss’s office. As her co-workers watch and razz her she playfully tosses up the edge of her long, voluminous gray, gathered skirt to reveal a not-very-sexy glimpse of calves shod in brown boots.

After Alex becomes suspicious of recent deaths of rich men married to the same young woman, we follow the pair as they separately pursue their occupations; Alex researches Catharine and Catharine researches her next prey, the owner of a museum in Seattle. Alex brings her work home at night, and sets up a projector and screen in her living room to examine life-sized slides of Catharine. Alex is immediately attracted to the glamorous woman, and superimposes her arm and hand over the image of Catharine’s arm and hand. She goes to the bathroom sink, regards her less-alluring image in the mirror, and bends over, jealous and despondent. The film cuts to Catharine as she, too, bends over; she is also at home at night, looking sensational as usual in reading glasses and a silk kimono, studying books and magazines, then watching a video of Northwest Indians, one of the interests of her intended’s museum.

As the film progresses, Alex visits the sister of one of Catharine’s late husbands, learning more about the black widow and getting closer to her quarry. In the following scene, Catharine, demure and bewitching, flirts with her next husband, telling him the old joke about how porcupines make love (very carefully) enchanting him, and getting closer to her quarry. In a later scene, set at night at her husband’s lakeside lodge, Catharine, wearing nothing but a camel-hair coat draped over her shoulders, stands in front of a fireplace. The coat drops to the floor to reveal, illuminated lit by firelight, the graceful silhouette of her back from the waist down. Then, her skin golden and her lovely face flushed from the glow of the fire, she bends to pick up her coat, and we see glimpse of her breast. Her husband (Nicol Williamson), reclining nearby on a mattress on the floor, regards her with frank appreciation. She drapes the coat over her shoulders and, barefoot, slowly approaches him, lowering herself, lying next to him and embracing him. In a stark contrast, Rafelson cuts to Alex at night, still at the office, playing cards with her boss and colleagues on a makeshift table. After the game, she is seated at her desk when her boss offers to massage her neck. When his fingers inch down toward her breasts, she turns abruptly, rebuffing his advance.

Black Widow 2

Later, both women have setbacks. Alex warns a Seattle police detective that the museum owner’s new wife plans to kill him, and the cop treats her like a crank. The film cuts to the museum owner telling his wife that a reporter (Alex in disguise) wants to write a profile of her, altering Catharine that someone is on to her.

In another visual manifestation of their duality, in staging and in costume design, Alex is associated with water and blue, and Catharine with fire and red. The two women are first shown in the same place when they get on a ferry, Catharine in a long, supple gabardine coat, driving a late-model Mercedes and Alex in a long, stiff, baggy jacket, on foot. They finally meet at a scuba diving class in a pool after Alex quits her law enforcement job to pursue Catharine, and finds her in Hawaii. Alex, who is all work, is likened to water and blue, the cold color and the traditional hue of police uniforms. Catharine, by contrast, is shown standing nude and then having sex in front of a fireplace, and later, with a new conquest, Paul (Sami Frey), in front of an erupting volcano in Hawaii. She is passionate and murderous, and associated with fire and red. Paul later mentions a belief that a goddess of devastation lives in the volcano and makes fire from time to time (just as Catharine turns murderous occasionally and kills a husband).

After Alex tracks Catharine to Hawaii and the two women meet, they begin a relationship. Although Alex abhors the crimes, she is attracted to the criminal. While Alex has been spending most of her time at her desk, at a low-paying job, Catharine has led a dangerous and action-packed life, traveling from city to city, marrying rich and interesting men, poisoning them, and inheriting their fortunes. Alex watches Catharine at work manipulating her next victim, Paul, from the other side of his back yard in Hawaii. Catharine watches Alex from the other side of a farmer’s market as the cop tries to get rid of a pesky private detective she had hired earlier to find the black widow. Realizing Alex is out to get her, Catharine begins to plot to get Alex.

Simultaneously, they begin an understated, unconsummated romance. At their first meeting at the scuba diving class, a tracking shot shows a succession of students, all young women, lying on the grass, practicing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The camera pauses as Alex lowers her face to Catharine’s, and jokes about not taking the gesture, so similar to a kiss, personally. After the class, they lie next to each other on chaises longues, sipping frothy drinks. Catharine is a blonde bombshell in a snakeskin-patterned bikini, her long, straight hair falling over a shoulder. By comparison, Alex, lying on the chaise next to her, looks plain and pale; she wears an unattractive bathing suit with a big tie like a bow, and a long, baggy blue shirt over it. They go to Catharine’s hotel room for a drink, and Alex reclines on her bed. When they have a picnic, they lie side-by-side on a blanket and talk about romance. Catharine rests on her elbows as Alex, propped up on her side, facing her, gazes at her intently; their faces are very close. Catharine turns and lies on her back, telling Alex about her husbands and her feelings for them, leaving out the part about doing them in. She turns again and the two women, each resting on an elbow, gaze at each other. After scuba diving, they sit on the beach, side-by-side, to watch the sunset. With Catharine’s blessing and encouragement, Alex sleeps with Paul, who Catharine, to whet his appetite, has declined to have sex with. With Alex thus occupied, Catharine searches her apartment, and when she finds a hankie in a drawer, she smells it and brushes it against her cheek in an old-fashioned, romantic gesture. And, at her wedding, Catharine, looking gorgeous in a sinuous, white silk-charmeuse gown, accepts a gift of jewelry from Alex, a pin in the form of a black widow. Unexpectedly, Catharine grabs the back of Alex’s neck, pulls her toward her, and kisses her forcefully, stunning Alex, and sending her reeling. Finally, at the film’s conclusion, Catharine tells Alex that of all her relationships, she will remember this one.

Not only does Alex find Catharine attractive, she begins to copy her. The first day they meet, Alex borrows one of Catharine’s dresses for an evening party and employs her hairdresser to shape her unruly curls. Alex is attracted to Catharine’s boyfriend, and sleeps with him. As the film progresses, she employs Catharine’s tactics and uses subterfuge to try to entrap the murderess. In the last scene, Alex has been transformed from an unkempt Department of Justice office worker, with wild hair and ill-fitting clothes, to a chic young woman with a stylish hairdo, and a fitted, décolleté dress, striding confidently out of a county courthouse in Hawaii.

The conclusion is character-driven and inevitable. Both women are compulsive and neither will ever give up; since Catharine won’t stop killing, she is doomed to be caught once Alex is on to her. But even though Alex prevails and puts Catharine behind bars, Catharine has prevailed in the sense that she has influenced Alex, who has become more like her. The divide between cop and criminal has narrowed. Alex has dirtied, if not bloodied, her hands. She has left her law-enforcement job, and used morally questionable methods – taking on disguises and using subterfuge – to pursue Catharine. She did not warn the murdered museum owner that his wife planned to kill him. Catharine couldn’t frame her for murder, but she has left her mark on Alex.