Wednesday 31 October 2018

The Six Most Popular Film Alert Posts in October

Folks these were the top six posts on the Film Alert blog for the month of October. I don’t know who got excited about "The Kveen of Outer Space" (to quote star Zsa Zsa Gabor) but whatever it got more than double the number of page views of any other post. Go figure that one. Click on the links to go to the posts or click on the photos to run a slideshow.
The Queen of Outer Space
Raoul Walsh
Erik Anderson

             Rod Bishop on 'the best student film I've ever seen' 
Adrian Martin
Curtis Levy

Tuesday 30 October 2018

On DVD - David Hare enjoys Edward Dmytryk's HITLER'S CHILDREN (1943)

Otto Kruger (above) is Bad Nazi and the luscious Tim Holt (middle) in très sexy buzzcut and uniform is Good Nazi, with the ever gormless Kent Smith and friend (bottom) watching helplessly as the forces of evil mow down Bonita Granville and everyone else in sight who's decent in Edward Dmytryk's more than slightly camp Hitler's Children (RKO, 1943). 
Now released on a good quality Warner Archive DVD-R . It doesn't come near as close to the bone as Sirk's terrific Hitler's Madman with Carradine or indeed Lang and Brecht's superb Hangmen Also Die, both also released in 1943, for anything close to dramatic consistency or serious exploration. 
But this picture does showcase director Edward Dmytryk's highly resolved post-Weimar visual style and cutting. He stayed on at RKO to do "A" pictures after the war and came up with his best film there, Crossfire (1947) which forges anti-fascism with the psychopathy of an anti-Semite and, in the Richard Brooks original, a homophobe. 
Back here in Wartime Propaganda Land both acting and a really terrible screenplay by Emmet Lavery (from a book by Gregory Ziemer) never allows the movie to reach past its ultimate value as Gestapo Camp. In these days of appalling news breaking every day that’s good enough for me. 
Perhaps I enjoyed the movie more than I should have, given the events in Pittsburgh last weekend which was as horribly disturbing to me as the mass murder of the patrons in a Florida gay bar a couple of years previously. Hate crimes are so inherently connected to the rise of fascism, a new development now so present in what used to be democracies which have been taken over by psychotic big business and dead-weighted Fascist thugs like Trump. You need to be able to laugh at all those aspects which are inherently absurd, like the presumptions of racial or ethnic or Christian superiority. 
So I thank a director way back, who was a dedicated anti-fascist, sadly dragged into the HUAC muck of commie ratting, by another major historic American thug and role model for the current horror, Joe McCarthy.

Monday 29 October 2018

Vale Colin Talbot - Peter Tammer remembers a remarkable Melbourne writer and film-maker

Colin Talbot died on Sunday 28 October

Dear Geoff, 

That’s really sad news which you have sent me. 

I hadn't had any conversations with Colin since about two years ago. Then there were a few months when we did engage in a series of connections via email, and Colin did visit me here in Kyneton one day for lunch. 

Colin Talbot, 70s (ph: Carol Jerrems)
Our friendship arose from the time when I was making a film with Mark Gillespie which eventually became another film, that's my film "Struttin' the Mutton" (1975), which was not the "intended" concept I was pursuing at the time. During the various stages of that filming I met Colin at Mark's place in Fitzroy one Sunday afternoon in a building which was being renovated and Mark was staying there for free. Colin told a story, which I cannot recall in detail, only that he bowled me over with his brilliant raconteur style, and then later I came across his novel "Massive Road Trauma"

That's where the friendship really started, all because I loved that novel and dreamt of making a film derived from it.

“Do not write letters, if you do, do not post them. If you post them do not put any address on the letter. On the envelope. Or write the wrong address. Or the wrong name. Better still do not write the letter, or keep the letter on the mantelpiece. Above the fire. Throw the old photographs in the fire.” 

Some years later I read "Sweethearts" and loved it too, although Massive Road was my favourite. Then in the mid-eighties I asked Colin if he would sell me the rights to Massive Road, and instead he offered to give me the rights if I would help him film"Sweethearts". Even though I was full of trepidation about going into a joint filming venture with him, because I had a strong understanding that our approaches to filming were quite different, I did engage with that project and I was central in getting it up, contributing all my 35mm film stock, my film equipment, and also in making deals to get the right camera etc. And I was the DOP.  However, all my fears came true about 16 days into the shoot and I had to resign from the film... there was no single cause, many causes, but one day I simply said to myself, "This is not working very well at all, and I just can't take any more." So I walked.

“There is blood on the road. It is mine. Running in the street. Well almost. Blood on the face, distorting the vision, ruining the clothes. I have fallen over. I have tumbled to the road and now cars rush by horns blaring. 

It was the bootlace. A tripping. I am confused and dazed. A lesser person would scream now for succour, for drugs and medication to lessen the pain.

Cars swerve to avoid contact, there goes one swerving. Swerving into a telegraph pole. I can see it from where I lie. Lay. Someone is contacting the ambulance. Not for me who really needs it though. The car door has fallen open. I must twist the neck to see correctly. There has occurred an accident. A series of loud noises, crashes, rents, scars.”

Later Colin managed to raise completion finance from the AFC and that's why there is now a complete version of "Sweethearts" posted on YouTube. I can't bear to see the film in that  extremely poor copy.  Viewing it now takes me right back into what was a really bad time for me on the set. But you can watch it if you click here

But true to his word and his gentlemanly nature, a few weeks after I walked from the production Colin visited me with a contract giving me the rights to "Massive Road Trauma". I was most surprised about that because I had only fulfilled about 50% of our deal when I walked.

Then I tried for many years to convert the novel into a film script, and tried to get it up as a film... all of that effort came to nothing! A great film was never made!

“Yesterday I invented a joke. The joke seemed as if it were funny, yesterday, then. I am thinking of the joke now. It does not seem funny.”

Colin and I had occasional contact about 1995 when I met him on St. Kilda Road one day during the time I was teaching at the VCA, he was with his partner Liz.

Not much happened after that, a lot of water went under the bridge. When I moved to Kyneton in 2010 we renewed contact via email. Then he sent me some stuff he was writing, and I sent him some of my stuff. Eventually he came to visit me here about two years ago and we had a nice day together. He wanted to make another film with me, another "no budget film" but I was incredibly nervous about it. I gave it a lot of thought, a large number of emails passed between us, but in the end I could see we still had the same "gaps" which had led to me walking off "Sweethearts". So I said no.  There was no bitterness, no anger, we both accepted it like that and really nothing came through since then, no further emails.

I didn't know Colin had been ill recently. Two years ago he told me his energy levels were really good for the first time in years after receiving some revolutionary new treatment. So when I received the news from you yesterday, Geoff,  it was a shock.

I just want to add a few more words here... Colin was a really nice guy, very gentle, and to me he was always extremely considerate. A lovely guy! Isn't it strange that we were both disappointed by what happened on the "Sweethearts" shoot, but we remained friends?

I'm also sad that I never succeeded in making a wonderful film of "Massive Road Trauma" because I just loved that novel, and I think that in loving that novel it was like loving Colin too!


Editor's Note: All the quotes in blue are from Colin's wonderful novel Massive Road Trauma.

On Blu-ray - David Hare revels in the work of costume designer Travis Banton in MY MAN GODFREY and THE AWFUL TRUTH

30s American cinema remains my favorite era in the movies. And it would not be the same without the great King of Wardrobe at 30s Paramount, Travis Banton. First three screens (above and next two below. Click on any picture to run all the stills as a slideshow) here are the divine Carole Lombard, with Banton outfits, uncredited, in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey in which she and William Powell rescue each other from their own social and personal prisons. 
It's one of the first two masterpieces to initiate the age of Screwball Comedy in 1936. It was produced at Universal, to whom Banton was loaned out by home base studio, Paramount. The new Criterion Blu-ray of this from new Universal 4K ex-first gen 35mm elements is a complete joy. 
The next four screens (below) are from Criterion's earlier release this year of a new 2K of Leo McCarey's' wonderful The Awful Truth, the second and major progenitor of the Screwball movement, made at Paramount in the same year where the director was on contract. 
The picture is I think one of the greatest handful of movies about marriage ever made. Others in my book of lists, Mank's great underrated Cleopatra(1963) which contains the best running conversation between a husband and wife ever written for the movies, here Liz Taylor and Rex Harrison, reading Mank's own transcription of Shakespeare's own best of the genre, “Antony and Cleopatra”. 
Also on top of the list Becker's light as air Edouard et Caroline in which a couple progress through one fearsome night from a small row over a dress to a showdown with the rich in-laws and a class war which climaxes with a terrible fight, then a rapturous resolution. All underpinned by a 90 second Chopin Prelude in A flat. 
Getting back to McCarey, Banton's wardrobe for The Awful Truth on home turf almost seems to run the visual gamut of black to white and then some, aside from set and production design, with its sheer post-depression blitz of high fashion, and opulence. His wardrobe for Irene Dunne is astonishing in range and often times, absurdity. 
Banton pioneers the insane abstract Brancusi hats (above) he would later display to dramatic perfection in Leisen's masterpiece, Midnight in 1939, in which some of the chapeaux seem to be threatening at any moment to dislodge the sets. Not only Dunne but even an actor as seldom used so well, Ralph Bellamy who despite playing a wealthy bumpkin is dressed with things like flared pitch fluted and tight-waisted pants with Fred Astaire ribbon belts, silk cravats (below) and shirts that only one of the most butch specimens of Hollywood might have carried off without looking ridiculous. 
To complement the eye popping wardrobe McCarey gives Bellamy a scene in which he takes Dunne to the dance floor, while ex-husband Cary Grant looks on with contempt. The band heats up and so does Bellamy who reveals a deft dance skill with which he nearly sweeps Dunne off the floor. The movie keeps working on these turnarounds of expectation. 

Dunne is constantly accompanied by her aunt, played by Hollywood's favorite 30s Lesbian, the great Cecil Cunningham (above). Cecil was routinely typecast as the growling bulldyke, barking out one liners with the authority of a steamroller. In this picture however, Banton gives her a surprising wardrobe which amplifies her range to create a major part. She’s also in Blonde Venus,  where she's given some greater dimension by Jo as a bordello Madam who throws off a line to Dietrich at a key point, "I know how it is dearie, I've gotta kid of my own." 
In Leisen's Swing High Swing Low (1937) she plays the Panama nightclub owner who hires both Lombard to sing and MacMurray to play the horn And again the picture is literally graced, not only by a Banton wardrobe, but Leisen directs DP Ted Tetzlaff to light and photograph her with warm affection and admiration, as a lesbian and a woman and a real character who has been "protecting" Lombard from MacMurray to that point. Nobody else but artists of the calibre of Leisen, Sternberg, McCarey and Banton would have ever bothered. 
And that makes all the difference, doesn't it?

The Current Cinema - Support for LEAN ON PETE (Andrew Haigh) - Opening November 29

Lean on Pete,   a new film by Andrew Haigh opens nationally on November 29. It has already drawn some solid support from Rod Bishop who saw it at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival and from David Hare who considered Haigh's work alongside that of Derek Jarman.

You can find Rod's review if you click here and David's if you click here

Sunday 28 October 2018

Talkie Talk #35 - Adam Bowen alerts to a festival, new movies in the cinemas and John Boorman, Mae West and Howard Hawks on TV


Jewish International Film Festival Click here for the festival website

Includes Love, Gilda– a doco about the comedian Gilda Radner and includes Q&A screenings with the director, Lisa D’Apolito

In Theatres

Wildlife– Aussie Ed Oxenbould watches his (on-screen) parents’ (Carey Mulligan & Jake Gyllenhal) marriage fall apart.

Fahrenheit 11/9   Michael Moore doco examining Trump’s America.

Rampant – Biff, boozing and bed-hopping during the Qing Dynasty.

Hunter KillerGerard Butler and Gary Oldman yell at each other.

Charming – 3 animated fairytale princesses become engaged to the same Prince Charming. G rated bigamy? 


Tuesday 12pm 9Gem. After a brilliant career as a documentarist, John Boorman made his first feature, Catch Us If You Can (1965)starring The Dave Clark Five as stuntmen, Having a Wild Weekend (the American title) with Barbara Ferris. A Hard Day’s Night it ain’t, but it’s relentlessly cheerful, and kooky. Manny Wynn’s monochrome photography is both ravishing and very much of the era.

Saturday 2.45pm 9GemGoin’ to Town (1935) is one of Mae West’s lesser vehicles; a rather frenzied comedy, in which she plays a cattle baroness, who’s determined to wed a British gent (Paul Cavanagh) in Buenos Aires high society. Lots of Sammy Fain songs, plus – curiously – an aria from the Saint-Saens’ opera, Samson & Delilah, delivered straight. At that time, Mae was the highest paid woman in America.

John Wayne, Red River
Saturday 4.15PM 9Gem: the 1948 Western, Red Riverdirected by Howard Hawks, photographed (b/w) by Russel Harlan, and starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Joanne Dru. It’s a sort of Mutiny on the Bounty cattle drive. Goes on a bit, but packs a punch.

Saturday 27 October 2018

Russian Resurrection Film Festival - a memoir about Vitaly Melnikov and a screening of his film MARRIAGE (USSR, 1977)

Royal Hunt, Russian DVD Cover
Back in the day, when I was working for Andrew Pike at Ronin Films, in the early 90s, a man called Nick Minaev, a bureaucrat, possibly KGB operative, posted to Australia by the USSR Government’s monopoly business, Sovexportfilm, turned up in our office in Canberra and said he wanted us to run the annual Russian Film Festival. 

This event had for years been the sole domain of the legendary Eddie Allison of Quality Films. Eddie had a lock on Russian cinema releases and was very close to various political forces on the left. When he learned what he had been done I don’t think he was that upset. He said he hadn’t made any money out of the festival for years. Neither, it eventuated did Ronin, notwithstanding some rebadging and some smarter advertising. The festival eventually transmogrified into today’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival which, according to its Website is shortly to have its 15thedition. 

Nick dumped a pile of VHS tapes on our desk and said “Choose what you want”. It was quite exciting to basically get a look over the current Russian production. Standouts from the pile included a new film, Zero City  by then young director Karen Shaknazarov, who later went up the ladder and is now head of Mosfilm. Another choice was a remarkable story about Catherine the Great titled The Royal Hunt  directed with great panache by the, to us, unknown Vitaly Melnikov. Ronin actually later put The Royal Hunt into general distribution. The star of the film was the great Russian actress Svetlana Kryuchoka. I later learned she was a feature actress in a number of Melnikov's films.
Svetlana Kryuchkova
 So, a year or so later I’m in Moscow, invited by Sovexportfilm to attend the newly re-established Moscow Film Festival. The event was a shambles, hardly any new films from anywhere and was only saved for me anyway when, spontaneously, the Director’s Union started putting on screenings of films not selected for the festival at its splendid Domkino building well away from the main events. I stopped going to the official venue and hung out at Domkino along with the likes of Ulrich and Erica Gregor from the Berlin Forum. The building also had the benefit of having a rather nice Italian restaurant on its top floor, managed by a somewhat forlorn young Italian whose brother had taken the lease on the place and then left the younger man in charge. It otherwise wasn’t doing much business.

Vitaly Melnikov
I mentioned to the people at Sovexportfilm that I wouldn’t mind going to Leningrad/St Petersburg and quick as a flash they had me booked on a train and into a hotel and the people from Lenfilm were alerted.  On arrival I was taken to the Lenfilm studio where they were delighted to hear my news that I thought the nascent reborn Moscow Film Festival was a bit of a flop at least that year. That pleased them no end. They wanted to know what films we had selected for our festival back in Australia and when I mentioned The Royal Hunt they were as pleased as punch because it was one of Lenfilm’s productions. …and the director Vitaly Melnikov was indeed on the premises. He had an office at the studio.

Quickly I was wheeled into Melnikov’s office. He was delighted to meet me. Delighted to know one of his films had made it outside the USSR and then proceeded to explain why he was unknown. His best films had run into trouble with the authorities and had been banned, suppressed, not released. He was a bit of a critic of Soviet conditions and his films had an edge that the authorities didn’t appreciate. He pressed upon me a pile of unsubtitled VHS tapes of what he thought were his best films and eventually, along with all my other VHS tapes, they were despatched into the rubbish bin unwatched. There was no email follow-up in those days and I never heard anything about Melnikov again. 

After The Royal Hunt Melnikov made another seven features, the last of them in 2012 when he was 84 years old. All up he made about twenty films and I suspect almost none have ever made it out of the former Soviet Union or the modern day Russia. 

But, at last, something has stirred, the Russian Resurrection Film Festival has unearthed one of Melnikov’s films from 1977, a comedy called Marriage.  I know nothing about the film except for what's in the program booklet  which says that its based on a Gogol story and is "a must watch for lovers of Gogol's classic literature and of quirky Soviet comedy." Some might say 'Soviet comedy' is a bit of an oxymoron.

It’s included in this year’s event as part of a selection devoted to celebrating he centenary of the Lenfilm Studios and among others in the selection of four are Iosif (Joseph) Heifits  The Lady with a Little Dog (1960) and the famous Innokenti Smoktunovsky Hamlet (1964).

As for Melnikov, it appears he is still alive so if he ever reads all this I wish him well and have the fondest memories of a morning in his office lo those years ago.

So on November 10 at 4.30 at the Event Cinema in George St I plan to see my second Vitaly Melnikov movie, a mere 30 years or so after the first. Looking forward to that.

On Blu-ray - David Hare tracks the career of Paul Schrader and admires discs of THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS, LIGHT SLEEPER and CAT PEOPLE

Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s career, as one of the so called 70s Brat generation began in 1974 with his first screenplay, The Yakuza. This was eventually directed, in a plausible but uninflected fashion, by Sydney Pollack. If ever you need an object lesson in differences of approach and expression through mise-en-scène, it would be instructive to spend a weekend re-imagining The Yakuza as directed by Schrader himself. 
Far closer to Schrader’s heart in spirit and in expressive lyricism, the comparably baroque Scorsese directed Taxi Driver (1976). It’s a film of bejeweled, chromium rainy nights in hell which has its own Scorsesian spin on masculinities, revenge and violence, after the Vietnam War. A kind of blithe irony downplays the lead’s psychopathy in the climax in favour of its own operatic lyricism (and a great Bernard Hermann score).
Blue Collar
Schrader’s directorial career begins with a totally accomplished debut, Blue Collar in 1978 on which he nearly killed himself taming the huge, coke-addled ego of comedian Richard Pryor. The movie was produced without interference and on a low budget by Universal. It has not been adequately seen or received anything like widespread acclaim but for all too rare Schrader scholars like Brad Stevens, who contributes a fine and lucid booklet essay to the superb Brit Indicator label's Blu-ray, which was released at the beginning of this year. Schrader, as is happily his want nowadays contributes a feature commentary track which, while as discursive as his commentaries always are, is completely riveting and full of insights into the process, the industry, his own life and background and the whole schtick of becoming a director. 
I have recently binged through another four of his pictures from the period to 1992 and Light Sleeper, by-passing for reasons of time two exceptional films, American Gigolo (1980) and Mishima (1985). I am not reviewing Gigolo until Paramount gets around, if ever to replacing their atrocious Blu-ray of this with a transfer worthy of the film. I will deal with Mishima  which received a superb Blu-ray transfer from Criterion around a year ago at another time. 
After making Blue Collar Schrader moved straight into autobiographical territory with Hardcore (1979) in which he managed to again tame a by then profoundly alcoholic George C Scott into a fine performance in a part seemingly lifted from Wayne’s role in Ford’s The Seachers. Having learnt his lesson in expending too much time and energy on one actor, with Pryor the year before, Schrader was able to rely on Scott to bring his own considerable experience to play not only on performance, but blocking, staging, framing and timing. The movie is more schizophrenic than any of his others, and while I have a lot of time for it, Schrader himself is not happy with the film. 
One objection he maintains is the extremely bright lighting that the majors (in this case Columbia) were asking their directors to use in that decade’s feature film aesthetic as television was beating down the movies' popularity. So he and DP Michael Chapman are obliged to mega light cheap motel rooms, tiny sex-on-premises booths, bordellos, private snuff film screening rooms, and worse in what seems like a 3-strip Technicolor flood of arc lamps. 
Schrader complains long and hard as he also does about the producer imposed “happy” ending (which is in fact parallel to Debby being returned with Wayne in The Searchers) where he notes his own preference for open and ambiguous endings, in this case one in which it’s discovered Scott’s daughter has died months before he even searches her out. The disc is a slightly older Twilight Time Blu-ray and comes from Grover Crisp’s team at Sony so as expected PQ and quality are superb. 
Cat People
Cat People from 1982 is ostensibly a remake of Tourneur’s masterpiece for RKO and Val Lewton in 1942. The screenplay credit for De Witt Bodeen is retained although Schrader’s hands are all over the material. This is the second, after American Gigolo, of the four luxe-designed and dressed of his so called “Highly Polished Apple” films (the next two were Mishima and The Comfort of Strangers (1990). Schrader lays on super-saturated color, plush high contrast photography by John Bailey again, a big, big Giorgio Moroder/David Bowie score, all using a good budget from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. 
Cat People
The movie pumps with the visible artifice of stylized color coded sets, high contrast locations and super tight close shots that seduce the eye while the most appalling violence and perversion are going on. If the picture has any substantial meaning that makes sense, I am at a loss to find it. A lot of it is “about” Nastassia Kinski (above), perhaps one of the most beautiful women ever to appear in 80s movies, who is here put through a litany of the director’s tropes as a sexually inhibited creature whose journey to liberation and freedom from guilt has to be photographed as luxuriously as possible. Like Hitchcock, Sternberg and Dietrich, Mizoguchi and Tanaka, and so many others. 
The Universal Blu-ray of this from some years ago delivers a very good rendition of original prints although I have not had time or inclination yet to uncover any supplements.
The Comfort of Strangers
The second most recently released disc is the semi missing-in-action Italian/UK/USA production of The Comfort of Strangers (1990). From a completely amazing novel by Ian McEwan-to draft by Harold Pinter-to final screenplay by Schrader. 
The Comfort of Strangers
As the director himself describes this four hander, he had two layers of style and meaning upon which he could add a third. McEwan’s novel has an entirely different socio-economic context for the Chris Walken-Helen Mirren couple, and explores sexualities there through both class and the eyeglass of the ultimate irreconcilability of men and women. Pinter’s own text as always explores how men and women keep each other apart by talking. Schrader adds to this boiling pot of Freud and Leviticus, homosexuality as the more or less unspoken third element. The text is a four hander and as in his other three “De Luxe/polished apple” films, we have the ultimate tendency to deep contrast lighting, artificial, gorgeously staged settings with painted backdrops and highly concentrated locations shot mostly in close and two shot. 
The Comfort of Strangers
Once again Schrader does a feature length commentary, this one even more discursive than usual (we’re all getting older). But it’s worth playing at least once if only for the hilarious early description of the production genesis. Here Schrader informs us that Angelo Rizzoli, both a major figure in Italian cinema and a consummate crook was, as a friend of Berlusconi, out of jail yet again after going in for (the usual) fraud charges. Hearing this, Schrader made a beeline for Rizzoli in Rome and did an obviously successful pitch which got the film made. 
For reasons that may or may not have to do with copyright, Comfort has had far too little distribution. I think it’s one of his best movies and the trio of metteurs-en-scène engaged in its deliverance creates a movie in which he has rendered Venice more like Istanbul to extend the boundaries of suggestion and reference. 
The Comfort of Strangers
Chris Walken was his one problem early, in his accustomed two-week rehearsal prior to shooting. Schrader had admired Walken since The Deer Hunter and wanted him to play the older male lead. Schrader requested he do an upper class Italian gentleman. But his demeanor and accent initially were more Joe Pesci out of New York-Italian than Schrader wanted, so he had to explain this to Walken who was mortified to discover his readings were not going well. Schrader suggested he should take a few days off and cast his mind around for an “Italian upper class poof who had been educated in London”. It worked, and two days later Walken was ready for filming. 
The new BFI Blu-ray of The Comfort of Strangers  is a thing of great beauty. Again it has a full length director's commentary and a transfer that has obviously gone back to O-neg and first gen 35mm fine grain. If I have any technical criticism it’s a slight tendency of the upper mask (from 1.85 standard widescreen ratio) to chop heads in medium two shots on about half a dozen shots, all exteriors of Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson (together above), who incidentally were, and are photographed as, two of the most gorgeous creatures to walk the face of the earth. 
Light Sleeper
Finally, a new Blu-ray released only in Australia to date by current rights holder StudioCanal of Schrader's 1992 masterpiece, Light Sleeper. I like the transfer very much, and it's great to have the picture in Blu format but I keep having the feeling a little more time, money and technical skill from StudioCanal might have delivered something even more pristine and with even better grain rez to Ed Lachman's superb night time photography. But I really can't complain about something I never expected to see the light of day in a release as good as this. 
The Oz disc is a good deal for foreign buyers if StudioCanal does not end up releasing this in other territories, although it is forced Region B, like the BFI release of The Comfort of Strangers. All other releases in this review are Region Free.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Discovering a major Japanese director - Barrie Pattison encounters Tomu Uchida at the Cinémathèque Française


Tomu Uchida
Asian film was one of the areas where English speaking discussion was pretty well non-existent pre WW2. However, with the Allied victory a number of American film critics found themselves abroad - Arthur Knight in Italy and Donald Richie in Japan. They started writing about the films they found there.

Richie was particularly influential, putting forward the view that the significant work in Japanese film came from their three major directors - Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. This has carried on down the years. When a Mikio Naruse retrospective made it here, the local activist paper announced that they would now consider the country to have produced four auteurs and I’ve heard that one repeated uncritically since. It throws up the picture of Tienosuke Kinugasa, Kozaburo Yoshimura, Hiroshi Inagaki and the rest standing round in the waiting room with their number tickets waiting to join the queue.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we can observe that Japanese film making actually took a giant step in the fifties. You can see this in Kurosawa’s work beginning with the 1949 Nora Inu/Stray Dog and in the Mizoguchi costume trio Ugetsu, Chikamatsu and Sansho Dayu outclassing their makers’ earlier work. 

We will probably never fully understand the reasons for this, though we’d have to factor in the Americans having ripped out the tacky old laboratory equipment and replaced in with the latest models as part of their post-war reconstruction work. A friend of mine asked the manager of one of their labs how they got such sensational results with colour and the man said “We follow the instructions on the label.”

Dancing Girl of Izu
The Japan Cultural Service has more recently attempted to fill in the pre-1945 void. A few titles had some circulation in 16mm. screenings and a good selection of material is now on YouTube with English sub-titles (including Gosho’s excellent1933 The Dancing Girl of Izu  (Koi no hana saku Izu no odoriko) and 1953 Where Chimneys Are Seen  (Entotsu no mieru basho). (Click on the English titles to find them on YouTube.)

In an attempt to deal with this gap in our knowledge, a confederation of cultural organisations - Japanisms 2018, The Japan Foundation, La Maison du Culture de Japon àParis, The National Film Archive of Japan, The Kinoshita Group and a clutch of car maker sponsors are mounting a series of screenings at the Cinémathèque Française Bercy centre - twenty seven titles in the first batch.

This was an appealing prospect not altogether met by the event. The prints did have English sub-titles to which the French added their own captions. The major problem was the miserable quality of many of the copies presented. It took a while to work out that the screen had gone white in Inagaki’s BanaNo Chutaro  Mabuta No Haha because snow is falling in the shot.  Finding that Masahiro Makino’s 1939 Oshidori Utagassen had a full range of tones was welcome surprise.

A few old favourites did make welcome re-appearances Ninjo Kami-fusen/Humanity & Paper Balloons, Kinugasa’s Kurutta Ippeiji/A Page of Madness and Naruse’s Tsuma Yo Bara No Yo Ni/Wife Be Like a Rose but attention centered on unfamiliar titles, Oshidori Utagassen was an example of the costume musicals glimpsed in Denis Quaid’s work as a projectionist in Come See the Paradise. Add Shimizu’s agreeable1933 Arigato San/Mr. Hello, Yoshimura’s 1939 Danryu a prototype hospital drama where they only ever get to treat one injury on screen, Masaku Itami’s 1938 Akanita Kakita/The Spy and Tomu Uchida’s 1933 Keisatsukan/The Policeman which was universally agreed to be the highlight of the event. though the 35 mm print was only passable.

Tomu who?

More than any other Japanese film maker (that we know about) Tomu Uchida has missed his place in that waiting room queue. Even with our limited exposure to his work, he can hold his own with any of the country’s film makers. Only Kurosawa himself deserves more respect. If you don’t believe me have a look at Uchida’s 1955A Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (Chiyari Fuji) on YouTube in a fair sub-titled copy. His silent Earth is there too but untranslated.

I’d encountered his work in the seventies when I reviewed enthusiastically his last film, the 1971 Shinken shôbu  dubbed as Swords of Death and dropped into a Kung Fu double where it outclassed the Hong Kong entries in the cycle.

For whatever reason he didn’t make it into the festival circuit but someone cluey in the Japanese Culture system thought it was time Tomu had a turn and put a season of his work into the Paris Cinémathèque. This had consequences.

A French distributor was sufficiently impressed to put out a French subtitled box set - so far as I know the only examples on video. I scored one in a Vietnamese video shop in Hurstville. The clerk was amazed at being able to offload a box of Japanese films with French captions. I asked if they had any more and she said “Thank you?”

I mentioned the Paris event to the Japan Foundation here and, whether they took that on board or whether the Melbourne Film Festival were due a cultural manifestation, part of it showed up there where it drew enthusiastic full houses - at three in the afternoon mid-week.

Which takes us back to Keisatsukan.
This one is like the Russian Pyshka/Boule–de–Suif or MGM’s Eskimo, a thirties film in the conventions of the silent films which Japan was still making. It proved remarkably fluid for any 1933 film - sound or silent.

Attention is immediately caught when the cops pull over a car at the traffic red light stop set up to catch a fugitive mob leader. They demand passenger Eiji Nakano’s name card. Officer Kosugi (the platoon leader in Takata’s more documentary1938 Gonin no sekko hei/Five Scouts also on show) recognises his old school friend now got up in lip rouge and golf gear with a suspicious looking bag of clubs. This is the era of dressing for golf movies - Robert Montgomery in Love in the Rough, Charley Chase in All Teed Up.

Kosugi has them wave Nakano on. What looks like part of the coverage of the police conversation becomes a striking travelling shot as the camera pulls away and follows the police cycle down the road to the station. They are still using the white cords and short batons seen in the silent samurai films.

Sub-plot offers a kid promised a better kite by Kosugi when his becomes caught in the telegraph wires while the boy’s sister watches.

The cops are called out to a bank robbery where a masked bandit injures the older officer. He is cared for by his family but dies. Fingerprints are taken from a cigarette butt and the dead policeman’s scabbard.

Kosugi spends time with Nakano smoking and relaxing stretched out on the tea house tatami mats, recalling their college football days. “There is an art to achieving identity”

Our hero is reproached by a fellow officer for his absence but he has spent his time in the low life billiard hall checking his suspicions. Given his friend’s cigarette lighter after he admires it Kosugi wraps it in his handkerchief (kind of obvious this) arousing the heavies’ suspicions.

Sustained shot of our hero standing head bowed at the head of an alley ends when he is coshed by a stranger. The kite kid’s sister working there intervenes taking him back to the older officer’s home where he recovers.

Detailed scene of him lifting prints off the lighter and comparing them with those on the scabbard - the earliest such material in film?

Alerted by this information a convoy of police cars and cycles race through the night with their headlights blazing to confront the heavies. This impressive footage alternates with captions about officers needing to suppress their personal loyalties for the needs of duty. The film was commissioned by the authorities to work up the Japanese public’s enthusiasm for their police force but before anyone strikes attitudes about authoritarian governments, consider the contemporary Cagney G-Men was made to fill a similar need.

The golf bag contained rifles and a suitcase is full of pistols. A mass shoot out ensues. Search lights trap the villains and the cops ride cycles in a circle round one cornered man (not all that convincing)

Kosugi shoots his old friend when he tries to escape by leaping off a bridge cuffing the injured hand which he first attempts to dress.

The film is limited by the Manhattan Melodrama plot with officer Isamu Kosugi turning on an old friend, mixed in with Nora Inu  or Blue Lamp  by having him avenge his father figure police mentor

Even so Keisatsukan is unexpected and accomplished. The film making is remarkable, the playing restrained and the unban back ground with trains and gasometers gets attention.

Uchida’s great work was still to come but this one already shows him to be a leading figure in his industry. It’s frustrating not to be able to see the rest of his output.