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The Truthful Fakery of Kaneto Shindō: a Review of “The Naked Island”

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It’s a bit odd that Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima, a.k.a. The Island, 1960) has taken so long to receive the Criterion treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, for this Japanese movie has been praised all over the world since it first arrived on the international scene in the early 1960s. Filmed on the tiny island of Sukune in the Inland Sea, not far from Shindō’s native city, Hiroshima, the bare-bones plot concerns a family of four – a man, a woman and their two young boys – who must transport, with great difficulty, their daily supply of water from the mainland to the island to cultivate their sweet potato crop, which would die (as would they) without this obsessive attention. Its vision of poverty and struggle in an exotic setting won such enthusiasm from European art house audiences at the time that the French actually turned its melancholy theme tune, composed by Hikaru Hayashi, into a hit pop song.

Yet the film, considered a classic by many, has had its share of detractors and doubters. Pauline Kael, in her review, dismissed the movie as phony, even sneering at the undeniable pictorial beauty of its Inland Sea setting, photographed by Shindō’s excellent cameraman, Kiyomi Kuroda. (“It’s pictorial, all right,” she wrote.) The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther – who, in his much more favorable review, naively called the work a “documentary” – wondered why the couple failed to build structures, such as cisterns, for catching and storing rainwater, so as to spare themselves at least some of those long, laborious trips carrying buckets of water.

Oddly, one of the film’s most vocal skeptics has been the director himself, who once candidly pointed out that the sweet potato crop that the family is shown cultivating would not, in real life, have required such enormous quantities of water to thrive. He also noted on this video’s commentary track – recorded in 2000 – that not only was the island on which they shot the movie uninhabited, but farmers from the area, such as the ones depicted, would never have actually watered their crops in the heat of the noonday sun, as is done in the film, because the water would almost immediately have evaporated.

So how has a movie of such dubious plausibility managed to evoke such a powerful response from audiences and critics for over fifty years? More than most films, The Naked Island is an overwhelmingly visual experience – except for one song by some schoolchildren, there is no spoken dialogue at all – with very little in the way of plot. So evoking its almost tactile beauty and primal power in a print review like this one is well-nigh impossible. A more profitable approach would be to examine why and how Shindō created it, beginning with some relevant background on the director’s difficult but very interesting early life.

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Kaneto Shindō was born in 1912 in Hiroshima into a rich and respectable family. But while he was still a child, his father agreed to serve as guarantor for a loan on which the borrower apparently defaulted, leaving the family suddenly destitute. They lost all their land, and the boy’s mother had to go to work as a farm laborer to support the others, which seems to have drastically shortened her life.

The young Shindō, resolving to enter the film industry, worked at menial jobs for various film studios while writing scripts at night. He eventually drifted into the orbit of his idol, the great Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff), who kindly informed the young man that he had no talent as a screenwriter. Undaunted, he continued to work for Mizoguchi as an art director and assistant and kept on writing, with the loyal support of his common-law wife, Takako… until she perished from tuberculosis in 1943. Drafted into the Japanese navy, he was one of only six men of his 100-man unit who survived, and happened to be absent from his hometown when it was reduced to rubble by the first atomic bomb in August 1945.

After the war, he formed a scriptwriter-director partnership with the established filmmaker Kōzaburō Yoshimura. Their very first collaboration, the classic The Ball at the Anjo House, was voted the best film of 1947 by Japanese critics. But the movies that the partners wanted to make were too dark and daring for the mainstream studios of the day. So in 1950, at a time when independent cinema was virtually nonexistent in Japan, the two men, together with the colorful character actor Taiji Tonoyama, formed their own production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai (The Modern Film Association). It was for Kindai that Shindō directed, with the help of funds from the Japanese Teachers Union, his third film, the beautiful, moving Children of Hiroshima (Genbaku no Ko: literally, Atom-Bomb Children), which premiered in Japan on August 6, 1952 ‒ the seventh anniversary of the atomic explosion, and only months after the end of the American Occupation.

At the dawn of the 1960s, after making a number of other socially-conscious films for Kindai, with very little to show in the way of box-office success, Shindō and his young company were near ruin. As a last-ditch effort, he conceived of a simple story set on a remote island that would require only four actors – Tonoyama, Shindō’s favorite leading lady, Nobuko Otowa, and two children from the area – plus a skeleton crew, including Kuroda, on a miniscule budget. When he screened the film at the Moscow Film Festival, the audience received it warmly and it won the Grand Prix. The total lack of dialogue proved, ironically, to be an asset on the festival circuit: since virtually no subtitles were required, the picture could be marketed anywhere. Thus, both the film company and Shindō’s career were saved.

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The Naked Island, which focuses particularly on its hard-working farmer heroine, is a prime example of what Japanese critic Tadao Sato called Shindō’s “feminism”… but the meaning of the word, in this context, must be clearly understood. Like that of his mentor, Mizoguchi, Shindō’s feminism is far removed from the common Western sense of the term, that is, support for the social and political emancipation of women. Rather, it implies a very personal love, even a kind of awe, for the capacity of Japanese women for sustained self-sacrifice, but it is also about the duty of Japanese men to accept the harsh burden of guilt such sacrifice imposes on them.

Where Shindō parts company from Mizoguchi, however, is in his frequent identification of female oppression with class oppression. Throughout his film career, he rejected solidarity with the social class his family was born into – the comfortable bourgeoisie – and embraced (often with ambivalence) the class his family fell into: the manual laborers, the dispossessed, the utterly marginalized. Many of the women in his films thus carry the double stigma of gender and class discrimination, and their heroism is the patience and grace with which they bear this yoke.

 

Nobuko Otowa in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa) labors in the fields in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

This is why Shindō’s muse and mistress (and future wife), Nobuko Otowa, became so essential a part of his filmmaking team. Otowa worked with Shindō for over 40 years, from 1951 to 1994. To my knowledge, in all of Japanese cinema, the only director-actor collaboration that surpassed theirs in sheer output was that of Yasujirō Ozu and Chishū Ryū, though the Shindō-Otowa partnership, while not quite as prolific, lasted longer. (She also did fine work at the same time for other illustrious filmmakers, such as Heinosuke Gosho and Keisuke Kinoshita.)

Yet when the best actresses that Japanese cinema produced during its Golden Age are recalled – including such names as Setsuko Hara, Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada and Hideko Takamine – Otowa never seems to get name-checked. This is a shame, for she excelled at portraying Japanese women of every class and profession. For Shindō in the 1950s, she played, among other characters, a prim young schoolteacher (in Children of Hiroshima), a geisha who gets transformed into a mindless toy before our eyes (in the devastating Epitome, 1953) and, in what may have been her oddest role, a mentally-challenged (autistic?) homeless woman (The Ditch, 1954), whose bizarre behavior Otowa somehow makes relatable, even sympathetic.

A particularly striking example of her skill at getting to the essence of a character occurs in a powerful scene from Shindō’s very first film as director, the semi-autobiographical Story of a Beloved Wife (1951). The screenwriter hero’s common-law wife, who is named Takako (like the director’s own deceased wife), is ill with tuberculosis. In the middle of the night, she begins coughing up blood. The hero, with trembling hands, holds a porcelain basin in front of her to catch the blood. The couple’s eyes meet, and she grasps his hand as if to steady it. Then she takes a pen and paper from a nearby desk and, without speaking a word, writes “Don’t worry. I won’t die” (though the hero, and presumably the audience, by this time knows she will die). So when Shindō decided to make his movie about farmers consisting entirely of such scenes, in which deep emotions are conveyed completely nonverbally, he knew that Otowa was up to the job.

 

Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama in The Naked Island

A farm wife (Nobuko Otowa, left background) and her husband (Taiji Tonoyama, right) carrying water in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island (1960). Credit: Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

It has seldom, if ever, been noted that one of the reasons The Naked Island works so well is not only Otowa’s skill as an actress (according to Shindō, the Moscow audience believed she was an actual farmer), but her high comfort level with her unprepossessing co-star, Taiji Tonoyama, who plays the husband. With his bald head, bug eyes and stuck-out ears, Tonoyama strongly suggests to the modern viewer (or at least to this viewer) a depraved Yoda. But he was, at the time, a character actor much in demand whenever a lecherous, dissolute or generally unsavory middle-aged character was called for. And, as a full partner in Kindai Eiga Kyokai, Tonoyama had acted in many films with Otowa throughout the 1950s.

The extraordinary chemistry between the two stars of The Island can be witnessed in a scene that occurs almost exactly half an hour into the film. The heroine, as per her routine, is dragging two heavy buckets of water up a steep slope towards the crops at the top of a hill when she suddenly stumbles. As the husband, standing on the hill slightly above her, looks on impassively (apparently, this has happened before), one of her buckets tips over, spilling the precious water uselessly over the arid earth. The wife carefully secures the other bucket and looks up expectantly towards her husband. He stops what he’s doing and walks down the hill… probably, we suppose, to help her. He pauses in front of his wife and suddenly slaps her, hard, knocking her to the ground, an act to which she offers no protest or resistance. She then gets up, and only then does he help her carry the remaining bucket the rest of the way up the hill.

As USC film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit has noted (in an interview included as a supplement on this disk), there’s no rage or animosity in the husband’s sudden, shocking act of violence. In other words, the slap isn’t the equivalent of saying, “You’re a stupid, useless idiot.” Instead, the slap is an extreme way of telling her, “You’re my wife, but you can’t make mistakes like this if we’re going to survive,” and the fact that she makes no complaint proves that she grasps this fact. And all the complex, painful ambiguity of the scene is perfectly and silently conveyed by these two veteran actors.

It should be noted that the director, through such scenes, is not really calling for the liberation of such women from their hard lot in life. Rather, he is calling on viewers to bear witness to the almost superhuman sacrifices that the heroine, and women everywhere in Japan, particularly those of the lower classes, make every day on behalf of the men in their lives.

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As Professor Lippit remarks in his interview, many of Shindō’s fellow filmmakers in Japan were not exactly over the moon about The Naked Island’s international success. “This is a film,” he says, “that for many of them played into an image of Japan that was too easily consumed by the rest of the world,” that is, an image of a country transitioning, very slowly and painfully, from a “backward” agrarian past to the technologically-driven present. Yet the film may have been seminal, for in the coming years, some younger filmmakers, particularly Shohei Imamura, would follow Shindō’s lead in exploring the legacy of “primitive” Japan.

When American film scholar Joan Mellen asked Shindō about this theme in The Naked Island, as well as in films by others, he gave a very interesting answer. “Yes,” he said, “that tendency has been rather popular among Japanese filmmakers for the past five or six years. The reason is that, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, we have been witnessing the weakening of the human mind. I think this is a universal problem. Consequently, modern men, and I for one, are in the process of reevaluating primitive man’s energy and identity.”

This belief of Shindō’s is probably the reason why The Naked Island, despite the hardscrabble, frustrating, grief-filled lives it depicts, does not really belong to the ever-expanding category of Miserabilist Cinema. The brief scenes of joy in the film – the father playing with one of his sons, the boys engaging in a fight with toy swords, the mother enjoying a bath alone – feel real and unforced. Unlike contemporary urbanites, these people of the land are not alienated from pleasure or from themselves. For Shindō, the eternally struggling “primitive” family in the film is to be respected and admired, not pitied, for its “energy” and “identity.”

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Shindō’s remarkable longevity as a man and as an artist – his final film, Postcard (2010), directed from a wheelchair, was released when he was ninety-eight years old – must surely have come at the price of tremendous survivor’s guilt. He once said that he had “always had the souls of the 94 [men in his battle unit who died] with me and have made them the theme of my existence.” Indeed, because he passed away at age 100, he could be said to have lived exactly one year apiece for each man in his unlucky squad, including himself.

I suspect that the only way he could have survived so long the burden of the many dead souls haunting him – his mother, neighbors and friends killed at Hiroshima, his fellow servicemen, Mizoguchi, his amazing wives – was to make films. By creating the false-yet-true masterpiece, The Naked Island, as well as famous films like Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), and many other excellent works, he bore that burden with the same stoic grace he so admired in his female protagonists.

Postscript: After she died in 1994, Otowa’s ashes were scattered, at her request, over the island, Sukune, featured in the film. When Shindō died nearly two decades later, his ashes joined hers on the same island… as if the couple had really grown sweet potatoes there, rather than a movie.

The DVD of The Naked Island (I have not viewed the Blu-ray) is a typically top-notch, full-scale Criterion release. The quality of the widescreen black-and-white images (and this movie, more than most, stands or falls by its visuals) is breathtaking, with literally pearly grays and wonderfully subtle gradations of tone in nearly every shot, and virtually no sign of scratches, dirt or other flaws, though the film is over half a century old. The commentary track (from 2000), provided by both the director and the film’s composer, Hikaru Hayashi, mixes technical details and personal reminiscences that are illuminating and sometimes moving, though at times the two men focus overly much on the film’s score to the detriment of other aspects of the production. There is also a brief but touching video introduction by Shindō himself from 2011 (he was 99 at the time), as well as a very casual but heartfelt tribute from the filmmaker’s number one fanboy, Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro. Finally, an interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit provides additional context, and a printed essay by Haden Guest makes a strong case for Shindō as a neglected Japanese master. All in all, an essential purchase for all J-Cinema fans.

 

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His Lunches with Orson – Henry Jaglom Remembers Orson Welles

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Alternately sad, hilarious, outrageous, and revelatory, My Lunches with Orson is the must-read Peter Biskind-edited book of transcribed tape-recorded conversations between the great director-writer-actor Orson Welles and his friend, confidant, disciple, and go-between in those terrible last years, fellow director-writer-actor Henry Jaglom.

By the late 1970s through the mid ‘80s, Welles’s meteoric rise in the 1930s and early forties was a distant memory. His last completed work, F for Fake (1974), was barely released, and though today it’s recognized as a daring, innovative work, and the time it was mostly met with hostile reviews. Pauline Kael’s vicious essay, Raising Kane, since discredited, tried to deny Welles his unimpeachable masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941), suggesting co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz was the true auteur behind that film. Later, Charles Higham, infamous for his disreputable, trashy “biographies” (e.g., Errol Flynn: The Untold Story; Higham was also notorious among his peers as a thief, pilfering one-of-a-kind archive material) further damaged Welles’s career with books theorizing that Welles pathologically abandoned projects before they were finished.

But Welles was a peerless cinema artist responsible for the movie widely regarded as the greatest ever made, to say nothing of nearly a dozen or so other masterpieces and near-masterpieces. And yet no one, even the most successful actors and directors in Hollywood, people who regarded Welles as a personal friend and a major influence on their own careers, would help him when he needed them most. Instead, during this time, Welles was forced to rely on income as a pitchman (for Paul Masson wines, etc.) and intermittent work doing TV guest spots and movie cameos.

The exception was Henry Jaglom, who directed Welles in Jaglom’s first movie, A Safe Place (1971), as well as Welles’s last film appearance, in Jaglom’s charming Someone to Love (1985). Jaglom called in every favor, asking friends and colleagues from his BBS/New Hollywood days and beyond, contacts he had made through the distributions and film festival screenings of his own films (Sitting Ducks, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, etc.) to locate financing for Welles’s latest projects: The Big Brass Ring about a gay presidential candidate in 1940s America; The Cradle Will Rock, an autobiographical project about the Federal Theatre Project’s 1937 musical of the same name; a version of King Lear to have starred Welles; and The Dreamers, based on two stories by Isak Dinesen that was to have starred Welles’s partner, Oja Kodar.

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The dismally unsuccessful efforts to get any of these projects made has long been the source of much speculation and confusion, but My Lunches with Orson traces the unraveling of these projects in heartbreaking detail and clarity.

And yet My Lunches with Orson isn’t merely depressing. The great raconteur Welles was on myriad talk shows of the period is also on display, but here, privately dining with Jaglom at Ma Maison, he speaks with a candor that, on almost every page, is outrageously funny and revealing. For instance, there’s a long discussion where Jaglom passes along an offer for Welles to appear on The Love Boat, which Welles is reluctant to accept. The money isn’t so hot and the obvious lure for down-and-out talent – a free cruise – doesn’t appeal to him. “They don’t know that I can go on any cruise in the world free,” he says, “if I lecture, or do magic one night and then sign autographs.”

But there’s another reason: “I don’t like the man who plays the captain. From Mary Tyler Moore. He has a kind of New York accent that gets my hackles up. I can’t stand it!”

Welles gleefully gets Jaglom’s hackles up, too, saying outrageous things about various actors (e.g., “Larry [Olivier] is very – I mean, seriously – stupid”; he refers to Dudley Moore as “the dwarf,” etc.”), films (he and Jaglom share a dislike of Vertigo but argue over the merits of Powell & Pressburger), and various nationalities and ethnicities. “Sardinians, for example, have stubby little fingers. Bosnians have short necks…Measure them. Measure them!”

The book, of course, is much more than this, with Welles making astute observations of 20th century history and art that he was so much a part of, as well as prescient statements about Hollywood and the industry that so stupidly rejected him. Most significantly, it helps clarify exactly why (and because of whom) he was ultimately unable to get any of these promising works off the ground, and identifying those who, like Prince Hal in Falstaff, rejected him and broke his heart.

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Long after reading My Lunches with Orson some questions remained, and Henry Jaglom generously took time out from the busy postproduction of his latest film, Ovation (2015), to answer them:

WCP: Reading and hearing about Orson Welles’s last years, prior to this book one had the image of the two of you desperately trying to sell people these magnificent projects, but that no one was buying. The book reveals a subtly different reality, one more complex, that instead of Welles being bereft of any offers at all, the two of you were fielding a variety of obscenely complex proposals, some shaky at their end rather than yours. Welles, however, was quite understandably cautious. He wasn’t about to agree to anything without a signed contract that ensured him final cut, and one that explicitly detailed where and how certain things would be done, and by whom. For instance, at one point he’s very insistent that postproduction on one project be done in the United States (rather than France) for tax reasons. On another (or maybe it was the same project) he talks about wanting to make sure that he retained home video rights. In other words, rather than the image of the artist denied his paints it was more a case of the artist desperately wanting to move forward but more so wanting to ensure that he wouldn’t get screwed over like so many times in the past?

Henry Jaglom: No, basically it was about him being denied his paints, though it is also true that his need for self-protection required certain things, certain freedom, casting, final cut. But essentially no one was buying, except that one time with Arnon Milchan and the actors Milchan required all said no in one way or another. No one else ever offered a real deal.

WCP: Well, then, do you imagine if the deal hadn’t fallen apart that he might have compromised his position on some things in order to make it happen, or would he have held film, even if that meant killing an offer? What if, say, everything had been set, but they insisted on an actor Welles didn’t like (e.g., Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman in The Big Brass Ring)? 

Henry Jaglom: All three too “ethnic” he said, couldn’t win the Midwest, couldn’t become President. Wish he’d lived to see Obama, it was beyond his imagination. Wish my parents, for that matter, had lived to see the unimaginable Obama.

WCP: Other than Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder, I can’t think of another book where one can clearly hear the subject’s voice, and all the subtleties that go with it, as one reads it. (I didn’t hear Hitchcock’s voice while reading Truffaut’s book, for instance.) As you and Peter Biskind were putting all this material together, did the Orson Welles you knew so well come alive again in that sense, a person that was in some ways very different from his public persona?

Henry Jaglom: He was, on the tapes, exactly as I had remembered him nearly 30 years before

WCP: Near the end of the book Welles is essentially saying that he’s got to make a living with money coming in NOW, not later. That people didn’t seem to realize that he, too, was mortal, That he had bills to pay, people to support, that he couldn’t devote a year of his life on a film, however personally rewarding, if founded on a vague promise that he’d be paid once everything’s done. What struck me as so profoundly sad about those remarks is that they’re nearly identical to what scads of struggling professional writers with a couple of books or scripts under their belts go through all the time – only in this case, here it was happening to the greatest living filmmaker. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is.

Henry Jaglom: Exactly. I don’t see a question here, though.

WCP: Well, maybe it’s more an observation that the book clarifies just how tragic the situation was, that on one hand he had to eat and pay bills just like the rest of us, and to the degree that impeded his ability to make films, that – try as you might – he was in a pretty hopeless situation. Let me put it another way: What should have been in place then, and perhaps still needs to been in place now, to ensure artists like Welles are able to work? Some sort of National Endowment for the Arts program? One partially funded by the major film companies? And, were he now the age he was then, do you think the adoption of new technologies like HD video would have made it easier for him to keep making films, or has the distribution end of things changed so radically that it might be worse?

Henry Jaglom: Yes, only a National Government thing would have made a difference. Films can be made much less expensively now, the technology would have enthralled him, but distribution theatrically is much worse. But non-theatrically has become something else and I think that the long form of quality TV that started with The Sopranos, combined with the incredible simplification of the technologies would have allowed him to possibly thrive. But the problem was he didn’t want to make films like mine with limited audiences like I’m happy with. He had had too big a taste of mass success (even if never financial success) to make “small” films for limited audiences, he needed to “show them” that he was still capable of making a BIG film, especially after F For Fake failed to even get distribution. (Today I could have distributed it like I did for Max Schell’s My Sister Maria and several their films.) But, once having failed at even that, the small art film, he reverted to the idea that his “next” film should show “them” that he was still in their game. That was his most self-destructive notion, combined with the idea that I was lucky because I wanted to make films about ”people sitting in rooms talking to one another” and he needed to bring “Elephants onto the hills above Rome,” [as] he would say.

WCP: Throughout the book, Welles frequently expresses very strong, negative opinions about seemingly unimpeachable movies and directors. For instance, I was surprised by his dislike of Powell & Pressburger, who movies I would have expected him to adore for their intelligence and cinematic innovation. Do you think he really felt that way? Or did he sometimes say something controversial for effect, or could his opinions have been colored by so many decades of professional disappointments at being treated so badly?

Henry Jaglom: He certainly said some things for effect or mostly to get a rise out of me, like some of his silly stuff about the Irish and some other groups, but what he said about actors and directors and movies expressed his real views in every case.

He knew I loved Powell and Pressburger, so perhaps he said whatever more strongly than he might otherwise. But where we agreed, like on post-black-and-white Hitchcock like Vertigo he was just as strong and opinionated. These comments were his real views, [and] I don’t believe they were influenced by his disappointments or said for effect.

WCP: And yet the book is often hysterically funny in the way Welles criticizes fellow actors. For example, saying John Gielgud played Shakespeare “as though he were dictating it to his secretary…’Witness this army…Have you got that, Miss Jones? Such mass and charge, led by a delicate and tender prince…Am I going too fast for you?’” This was a facet of his personally one normally didn’t see on The Merv Griffin Show.

Henry Jaglom: But he meant the criticisms he made, and the judgments about others and their work, even when he knew he was being funny and entertaining. We knew each other so well and this book only reflects a small percent of that. But, of course, he wasn’t going to show that side on Merv Griffin.

WCP: During the last ten years of his life, friends and professional colleagues in a position to help him get one of his films off the ground essentially turned their back on him. My Lunches with Orson identifies some of these people. And while most of the actors and filmmakers Welles has harsh words for have since passed away (Olivier, Charlton Heston, et. al.), some of the others are still living. Have you heard from people like Peter Bogdanovich, John Landis, Burt Reynolds or others since its publication? And were you and Peter Biskind compelled to leave anything out?

Henry Jaglom: My deal with Biskind was that the only things I could insist on his taking out were personal things about Oja Kodar, though I did get him, with some pressure, to agree to take out one most personal item about Bogdanovich and one intimate one about Spielberg, both I felt much too personal. Yes, John Landis called me up and was very upset and – needless to say – so was my old friend Peter, to put it mildly, especially after Maureen Dowd’s review in The New York Times. I don’t know Burt Reynolds but can’t imagine he can read.

WCP: According to the book, there was a kind of unspoken agreement that the subject of Welles’s weight was off-limits. What the book doesn’t address, and perhaps you never discussed with him but maybe the backers you negotiated with, was the question of whether or not he was insurable, what with all his various maladies. Was that ever a concern, and did you ever discuss a back-up plan/director should he have become unable to finish one of these late-career movies, as was done with John Huston on The Dead?

Henry Jaglom: His weight was the one subject we never talked about, though he would from time to time tell me how many laps he had swum that day, trying to earnestly prove that he was trying. And when we were together in LA or New York or Paris or Cannes he ate carefully, but I learned that late nights at hotels were a very different story. Whether he was insurable never came up, strangely enough, because we knew there were doctors who would write what was necessary. What various maladies, his knees were his main problem. Your mentioning John Huston reminds me of one of the most touching days. Shortly after Orson died, Huston called and came up to my cutting room to see footage on my Kem of Orson talking about this and that in his last film, which I was cutting, Someone To Love. Huston with an oxygen mask attached to his face and a nurse/girlfriend carrying it, as he sat and watched his old friend for the last time.

WCP: What are your thoughts on the current plans to release The Other Side of the Wind?

Henry Jaglom: You know as much as I do. It was some of my best acting and scenes from it moved around the Internet a few years ago, which was fun and are now vanished. It was hard to tell what it would look like if somehow all put together. I am skeptical but Bogdanovich tells me that they are “working on it.”

WCP: This year marks the centenary of Orson Welles’s birth. Will you be participating in any special screenings/events to mark the occasion?

Henry Jaglom: All kinds of people planning all kinds of things. Did you see the four shows on TCM with me hosting about Orson one night some months ago, two of his films and two of mine? Interviews about him in-between. It was well done, and they are talking about something for his 100th Birthday, as are many others.

WCP: You’re now several years older than Welles was when he passed away. When you look back at those conversations now, can you see things now that you couldn’t see when you were in your forties? And are there things the older, wiser Henry Jaglom wishes the younger version of yourself had asked him about?

Henry Jaglom: Really? I’m older than Orson was? Wow, I feel like a kid, the same age I was then. Hard to believe but I’ll take your word for it. No, there is absolutely nothing I feel that would be different, nothing I didn’t see and feel I understood about him back then, nothing I can think of that I would have asked him about that I didn’t. I’ve always been very open and easily communicative and Orson made it easy to be that way with him because he was so open and communicative with me. I just wish I could show him the films I’ve made; that would be a lot of fun.

It was also really interesting to discover that Welles had some input into your screenplay for Always. Since his death, when you’re writing, shooting, or cutting do you ever ask yourself, “What would Orson do?”

Henry Jaglom: All the time! I have tapes somewhere of his sitting behind me smoking his cigar while I’m editing Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? and commenting and suggesting all sorts of things. I always have his voice in my ear while I edit, which I’m doing right now as I write this, on my new film, Ovation.

Late Show Featured

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Late Show” (1977)

 “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

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In the late 1960s and early 70s, “film noir” was a term known only to dedicated classic cinema aficionados, and urban-based movie mysteries involving cynical, hard-boiled private detectives were considered relics of the past. (Two attempts to revive Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective hero Philip Marlowe, Marlowe, Paul Bogart’s 1969 film adaptation of The Little Sister, and Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, both failed dismally at the box office.)  But after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown proved to be a major financial winner for Paramount Pictures in the summer of 1974, private eye mysteries enjoyed a brief resurgence in movies (Dick Richards’ 1975 adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and on television (City of Angels, The Rockford Files). “Film noir” was suddenly ‘in.”

Among the most interesting off-shoots of this subsequent revival were a trio of films released by Warner Brothers (none of which came anywhere close to repeating Chinatown’s business): Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), which, like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, was a total deconstruction of the genre; Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975), a belated sequel to Harper (Jack Smight’s 1966 adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target); and, best of all, The Late Show (1977), written and directed by Robert Benton, best known at the time for co-writing the screenplays of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (The Late Show was Benton’s first solo script.) But to imply that The Late Show was a kind of knock-off of Chinatown would be grossly unfair to a unique, one-of-a-kind film that lived up to its advertising tagline, “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you’ll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.”

Although set contemporarily in the dreary, colorless Los Angeles of 1977, memories of the 1940s haunt The Late Show (a mood immeasurably enhanced by Ken Wannberg’s subtle, melancholy jazz score). Make no mistake, however; this is no nostalgia piece pining for lost times. The film’s main character, ex-gumshoe Ira Wells (beautifully played by Art Carney), has no desire to live in the past. With his bad leg and hearing aid, Wells simply wants to live out his final years in peaceful retirement, with perhaps an occasional day at the race track for diversion. (Benton based Wells on his own father, who preferred downing one glass of Alka-Seltzer after another rather than having his perforated ulcer operated on a second time.)

Late Show 2

It’s worth noting that Robert Altman, who produced The Late Show and assigned Benton to direct it after buying his script, saw it as a kind of sequel to his own The Long Goodbye, complete with that film’s salt-and-pepper team of homicide detectives Dayton and Green (John S. Davis and Jerry Jones, respectively) putting in a reappearance (before winding up on the cutting room floor). In fact, Wells’ standard attire is identical to that worn by Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in the earlier film: black suit and tie with a white shirt. (In an interview connected with the release of The Late Show, Altman joked that he was going to keep remaking The Long Goodbye until he got it right.)

Fresh off of his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974), Carney gave an even better performance playing a role unlike any he’d ever done previously. Before his Oscar win, Carney was, of course, best known for playing the role of Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s seminal TV sitcom The Honeymooners. But, although he was a prestigiously versatile actor who felt equally at home doing comedy and drama, Carney had never been cast as a tough guy (or even a former tough guy) before. As Carney himself put it, “I’ve got the hearing problem… I’ve got the bum leg. I’ve got the paunch, the middle-age spread. I mean, I really brought my paunch to the part. I’ve got cataracts. And for the perforated ulcer, I’ve got my hiatal hernia… I mean, the character was well defined before we got started. I told Benton, ‘You’ve got the right guy.’” [1] (The way that Ira’s physical infirmaries make him particularly vulnerable is one of the film’s main sources of suspense.)

The other star of The Late Show was another brilliant, unique talent, Lily Tomlin, who had received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Altman’s Nashville (1975). Tomlin played Margo Sperling, a former Hollywood actress wannabe, burned-out “flower child,” and free-spirited kook already becoming a crazy cat lady. Margo barely makes ends meet by freelancing as a clothes designer and a manager for performing artists of dubious talent (sort of a hippie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose), in addition to periodically peddling some reefer. (“This grass was so great, I can’t tell you. There was so much resins in it, it made your lips stick together.”) As Margo, Tomlin gave arguably her finest film performance ever. (Both Carney and Tomlin should’ve won Oscars for The Late Show.)

Initially, there was some friction between Carney and Tomlin, due mainly to Altman and Benton allowing Tomlin free rein to ad-lib her way through scenes. According to fellow cast mate John Considine, “Art had a lot of trouble with Lily, because of her improvising.” Carney was an actor of the old school who believed in following a script to the letter and had problems in the past with actors who didn’t, most notably Gleason and Walter Matthau (his co-star in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple). Carney was eventually won over by Tomlin’s professionalism and Benton’s encouragement to improvise along with her.

The Late Show opens with a sepia-toned image of the 1940s version of Warner Brothers’ “shield” logo. Instead of Max Steiner’s familiar musical fanfare, however, we hear a nightclub audience applauding and a piano begins playing the first few notes of the movie’s theme song, a sultry torch number called “What Was,” composed by Wannberg with lyrics by Stephen Lerner, and sung by Bev Kelly.

But when the first shot fades in, the setting isn’t a nightclub; it’s Ira’s modest rented room (the song continues in the background). We see a typewriter on Ira’s desk (a piece of paper in the typewriter shows the first words of a manuscript: “NAKED GIRLS AND MACHINE GUNS, Memoirs of a real private detective by Ira Wells”) and, beside it, a framed photo of actress Martha Vickers (best known for her role as Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep). The camera then wanders around the room, taking in, among other things, old photos taped to a mirror (cleverly utilizing actual photos of Carney and Howard Duff in younger days) while the credits are superimposed over the shot. By the time the credits and the song are over, the camera settles behind Ira, sitting before his desk. Then a cut to a medium shot shows Ira perusing a newspaper, pencil in hand (obviously picking out his bets for his next visit to the track), while an old movie depicting a World War I dogfight blares on a portable black-and-white television set behind him.

There’s a knock on Ira’s door and, outside, Ira’s elderly landlady Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson, a founder of the Group Theatre) announces that he has a late-night visitor. Ira opens the door to reveal Mrs. Schmidt and his ex-partner, Harry Regan (Duff). Harry’s disheveled appearance automatically leads Ira to think he’s drunk (“They’re gonna have to put a night shift on Jack Daniel’s just to keep up with you.”), but when Harry opens his mouth to speak, the only thing that comes out is blood. Interrupting Mrs. Schmidt’s screams with an urgent plea to call for police and an ambulance, Ira leads Harry to his bed and sets him down. Prying away the raincoat that Harry’s clutching over his belly, it becomes immediately apparent by the bloodstain spreading across Harry’s shirt that he’s dying from a gunshot wound.

Harry: “It’s not as bad as the time in San Diego… Ira, got a deal for us…”

Ira: “Harry, who did it?”

Harry: “It’s chance for us to make a lotta dough…”

Ira: “Harry, you’re dyin’. Who did it? How did it happen?”

Harry: “Don’t worry, Ira. I’m cuttin’ you in. Fair deal. Just don’t try to throw a scare inta me. I won’t work. I’ll lay it all out for you. Just get me to a hospital…”

Ira: “God damn you, Harry! Lettin’ someone just walk up to you and drill you like that, point blank. Nobody can palm a .45. Jesus Christ! You never had the brains God gave a common dog!” (sadly) “Sorry you’re goin’ off, pal. You were real good company. The best.”

Harry: (starts to respond, then breaths his last)

Ira: “The very best.” (sighs)

The day of Harry’s funeral, Ira bids farewell to the mourners, then starts to head out of the cemetery. He’s stopped by an old acquaintance, Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an oily promoter, talent agent, and part-time bartender who’s the epitome of a bottom-feeding weasel. He introduces Ira to Margo. She wants to hire Ira to find her cat, Winston, who’s been kidnapped by a thug named Brian to whom she owes $500. (“So pay him!” Ira says exasperatedly.) When Margo gets bent out of shape by Ira’s indifference and offers him all of $25 for the job, Ira keeps his temper in check, tells Charlie that he appreciates his presence at Harry’s funeral, and that he should teach his friend “to show a little respect for her elders.” Then he stalks off to head for the track, with Margo waving a photo of Winston at him and wailing sorrowfully, “This little kitty’s just a little honey bun! Give this little cat a break!”

Later that day, Ira confronts Charlie at the shoeshine stand in the seedy building his office is in. “How long has it been since I’ve last seen you, Charlie? Close to a year, isn’t it?” Ira asks, “Somebody puts the freeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know, you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly, a song-and-dance about a stolen cat, and all that hot comedy.” Charlie tells Ira that Harry was the first shamus Margo hired to find her cat.

Next stop: Margo’s apartment in La Paloma. “Harry Regan was a pal of mine, close to twenty-four years. Whoever it was that killed him’s gonna be goddam sorry,” Ira declares. (Ira’s quest to find his partner’s killer deliberately echoes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The Late Show’s overtones of that uber-private eye saga don’t stop there.) Margo reveals that the catnapper’s full name is Brian Hemphill (“He’s this guy,” Margo says, “He’s really sort of a tuna.”), and that she used to “shlep” hot merchandise for Brian and his “partner” and wound up “borrowing” the last payment for said property. Ira sizes Margo up on the spot.

“Back in the 40s, this town was crawlin’ with dollies like you, good-lookin’ cokeheads, tryin’ their damndest to act tough as hell. I’ve got news for you: They did it better back then. This town doesn’t change. They just push the names around. Same dames, screwin’ up their lives, just the same way.”

Ira tells Margo that, the next time Brian calls, he wants her “to set up a meet,” and leaves it at that.

The “meet” goes disastrously. Charlie and Margo show up at Mrs. Schmidt’s house with bad news: Margo told Brian over the phone that Ira was “gunning for him,” and Brian is now on his way over, armed and dangerous. (“Brain’s not very evolved,” Margo explains, “In fact, he’s rather de-evolved.”) Ira immediately breaks out his old revolver and loads it. But, as Brian approaches the house, he’s confronted by another man, who shoots and kills him and takes off in a car. Ira goes outside to pursue the killer. He aims his gun at the fleeing car while turning down his hearing aid (a wonderful image). One of his shots punctures a rear tire, and the car crashes and bursts into flames, but the murderer still manages to escape on foot.

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While awaiting the arrival of the police, Ira demands Charlie to hand over “whatever you took off the stiff.” (“Jesus, kid, you always were the best,” Charlie says admiringly, then adds to Margo, “Didn’t I say he was the best?”) The “whatever” turns out to be a small leather folder containing rare stamps. Ira immediately puts two and two together.

Ira: “The Whiting job.”

Margo: “What? Who?”

Ira: “About ten days ago, somewhere out in the valley.”

Margo: “Whiting? Who is that?”

Ira: “That Whiting had a stamp collection worth almost fifty grand.”

Margo: “Who is that? Who’s Whiting?”

Ira: “There’s a murder one tied to it, right?”

Margo: “Okay, don’t tell me. What do I care?”

Ira: (patiently, as if explaining to a child) “Two guys broke into a house out in the valley. They tied up Whiting and his wife and started to lift the stamps. Then something must’ve gone wrong because they beat up Whiting and killed his wife.”

Margo: “Oh, how disgusting! I don’t want to hear any more.”

After Ira threatens to turn him over to the cops, Charlie comes clean: While looking for Margo’s cat, Harry stumbled onto info about Brian and his partner pulling the Whiting robbery, and he and Charlie planned to turn them in and split the fifteen thousand dollar reward the insurance company was offering for the stamps. Obviously, someone involved with the crime found out what Harry was up to, so exit Harry.

From there, the trail leads Ira to Ronnie Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a slimy, porcine wheeler-dealer in stolen merchandise and black market goods whose descriptions of the hot products he fences sound like he memorized them from the Sears catalogue, and Birdwell’s sadistic but fastidious strong arm goon Lamar (John Considine). (In his Trailers From Hell commentary on The Late Show, screenwriter Josh Olson describes Lamar as “a gunsel in every sense of the word; look it up.”) Birdwell also has a faithless, promiscuous wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is obviously this film noir’s obligatory femme fatale.

As Ira’s investigation progresses, the dead bodies continue to pile up, (one corpse is discovered inside a refrigerator), and the intrigues and double-crosses he uncovers multiply. (On a positive note, Winston is recovered, alive and unharmed, but Margo is convinced that he’s been traumatized by his temporary stay with murderers.) All the while, the initial animosity between Ira and Margo develops into a genuine friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s ingenuity. They bond even closer after successfully eluding a couple of thugs who were pursuing them in a high-speed car chase.

Margo: “Ira, I feel so high. Just so incredibly high, I can’t even tell you. I feel like I’ve dropped acid, I mean, have you ever dropped acid?”

Ira: “Well, not in the last ten minutes.”

Margo: “You know, I get this feeling, I mean, do you know, can you see anything about me that’s different, I mean, like my expression, can you see a different kind of expression on my face?”

Ira: (deadpan) “You look higher.”

Margo: “I look high? Do I, right now? Well, I am high. I’m telling you, I am high.”

On a roll, Margo proposes getting herself a private investigator’s license so that she and Ira can go into business together.

Margo: “I feel like The Thin Man.”

Ira: “Who?”

Margo: “You know, Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.” [2]

It seems that the apartment next to Margo’s is vacant, so she thinks that they can make it the office for their new detective agency. But, ever the loner, Ira shoots the idea down, and, in the film’s most poignant moment, Margo tries to hide her disappointment while struggling to keep from breaking down.

For the climactic scene, all of the suspects wind up in Margo’s apartment. (In the movie’s most stylish visual touch, the camera does a 360° turn around the apartment, starting with the open front door while the building’s ancient elevator is heard beginning its ascent, panning past the faces of those gathered there as they await Ira and Mrs. Birdwell’s arrival, and coming full circle with the elevator noise ceasing and Ira and Laura walking in through the door.) Per mystery movie tradition, Ira details all of the evidence and explains who did what to who, resulting in the guilty parties either ending up behind bars or joining Harry in the cemetery.

As for what happens to Ira and Margo afterwards, that question would’ve been answered in Benton’s proposed sequel (to be titled, of course, The Late Late Show), in which Ira moved into the vacant apartment next to Margo’s and they opened that detective agency she dreamt of. Certainly, the uniformly positive reviews The Late Show received (with raves from Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby, among others) would seem to have justified continuing Ira and Margo’s adventures. But, unfortunately, Warner Bros. only half-heartedly promoted the film, and The Late Show quickly faded into undeserved obscurity. (According to Olson, there were only two other people in the theater when he saw in on its opening Friday night in Philadelphia.)

In 2004, Warner Home Video issued a bare bones single-disc DVD release of The Late Show, the only extras being the theatrical trailer and a brief 1977 television clip of Tomlin plugging the movie on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talk show Dinah! while surrounded by that day’s other guests, the Doobie Brothers. (The only real value of this clip is to serve as a reminder of how dead on the money the satirical series SCTV was when it skewered TV talk show banalities.) In reviews of the DVD, there have been some complaints of the print looking “grainy” and the colors being rather faded, but having seen The Late Show about half a dozen times in the theater during its first release, I can assure you that the movie has always looked like that. (In fact, graininess and muted colors were practically among Altman’s trademarks in his own films, so it’s safe to assume that these aspects of the film were deliberate.)



 

[1] Michael Seth Starr, Art Carney (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books: 2002)

[2] A reference to The Thin Man television series that ran for two seasons on NBC, starting in the fall of 1957, and later went into syndication. Margo was, after all, a child of the 50s.