Jan. & Feb. 2016 at TCM’s Movie Morlocks

Links to some of the writing I did for TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog in Jan. & Feb.

cm04

Jan. 7: William Cameron Menzies: Chandu the Magician (1932)

Excerpt: “In recent weeks, you might have heard about the upcoming Doctor Strange film currently scheduled for release in November of 2016. The news caught my attention because I’ve always liked the comic book character and the cast, which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is impressive. I mention all this because tonight TCM is launching their month-long spotlight on legendary production designer and director, William Cameron Menzies. Some classic film fans might balk at the idea of mentioning the upcoming Doctor Strange movie and William Cameron Menzies in the same paragraph but there are slender threads that connect the two thanks to Menzies’s creative contributions to Chandu the Magician (1932)”

bont

Jan. 14: 15 Favorite Films of 2015

Excerpt: “Many of the best performances I saw last year were given by actors who were 65-years old or older suggesting younger generations of performers could still learn a lot from actors like Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Ian McKellen, Richard Jenkins and Kurt Russell (who will be turning 65 in March!). I hope it also encourages future filmmakers to create roles that allow these veteran actors to strut their stuff.”

gilag00

Jan. 21: ’60s Spy Stories: Gila Golan

Excerpt: “Femme fatales are as important to ‘60s spy films as they are to Film Noir but one of the most frequent criticisms of the genre is its questionable depiction of women. While it’s true that they’re often treated as mere sexual objects in these espionage romps and are regularly introduced into the paper-thin plots to give the male leads something to ogle, the particulars are a bit more complex than that. If you watch enough of these panache productions you begin to notice how subversive many of them are. Sure, the women might dress in sexually suggestive clothing and use their feminine wiles to lure men to their doom, but they are frequently put in positions of power. They’re also regularly portrayed as being smarter or at least as capable as the men they encounter and occasionally save the day. If and when they decide to fall into the hero’s arms they’re often the ones initiating the relationship and control much of the action.”

NurseRatched

Jan. 29: A Minor Picture Compendium of Classic Movie Nurses

Excerpt:”Movie nurses come in all stripes. They can be mean and cruel like Nurse Ratched or gentle as doves like Audrey Hepburn’s character in The Nun’s Story. They can also be sexy, smart, compassionate, laugh-out-loud funny and ruthless blood thirsty monsters. What follows is a picture gallery featuring some of my favorite movie nurses.”

tdp03

Feb. 4: Melvin Van Peebles: The Story of A Three-Day Pass (1967)

Excerpt: “Seemingly Influenced by both the French and British New Wave, including the early films of Godard and John Schlesinger, Melvin Van Peebles first full-length feature film subverts conventional narrative methods to delve deeper into its characters conflicted psyches. The Story of A Three-Day Pass bounces, pops and glides like a musical composition and the innovative freewheeling nature of the film mirrors its jazz inspired score. Van Peebles uses a number of experimental film techniques including dolly shots, freeze frames, jump cuts, jarring dissolves, split-screen and lengthy POV shots that impart the film with an intimacy and immediacy that immediately draws you in and demands your attention. We’re encouraged to see the world through Turner’s eyes and we experience the bigotry he faces in a very direct way. It was refreshingly straightforward and progressive stuff in 1967 that retains its power to shock and provoke audiences today.”

sjob00

Feb. 11: Jean-Claude Killy in Snow Job (1972)

Excerpt: “Snow Job was filmed on location in the Italian and Swiss Alps by American director George Englund (The Ugly American; 1963, Zachariah; 1971, etc.) and Hungarian cinematographer Gábor Pogány (Two Women; 1960, Bluebeard; 1972, Night Train Murders; 1975, etc.). According to interviews, they used helicopters extensively throughout the shoot, which allowed them to capture all the action on the slopes. The camerawork is occasionally breathtaking as we watch Jean-Claude Killy jump and drift across the alpine landscape like an agile bird while risking serious injury or even death. Killy insisted on doing all his own stunts and it’s remarkable that he got through filming unscathed. If you appreciate seventies heist films with dynamic action sequences or the kind of risky professional skiing typically reserved for Warren Miller documentaries, you should find Snow Job a particularly rewarding and enjoyable watch.”

mattic

Feb. 18: Jack Palance: Horror Star

Excerpt: “I first saw the tall, broad featured and chiseled actor in Man in the Attic (1953) where he played Jack the Ripper in this fourth film adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 novel, The Lodger. I was only a kid at the time but Palance’s quietly seething performance impressed me due to the sympathy he was able to generate for his unlikable character. Jack the Ripper is typically portrayed as a cold-blooded maniac or sexually motivated monster but Palance, despite his menacing presence, was able to imbue his Ripper with a complex psychology that was thought provoking and surprisingly contemporary. As a seemingly harmless killer with an unmanageable Oedipus complex, Palance’s Ripper prefigures the often-cited character of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho.”

serv2

Feb. 25: Douglas Slocombe: A Tribute

Excerpt: “What follows is a gallery of some of my favorite screen shots from Douglas Slocombe’s distinguished oeuvre. They demonstrate that the accomplished cinematographer was much more than an artless journeyman or technician who simply took orders from a director. The images I’ve gathered are linked together by a unique creative vision that spans the length of his 50-year career in film.”

Regular visitors to Cinebeats over the years might recall my affection for many of the films Slocombe worked on, which I’ve written about here including The Third Secret, Boom! and The Servant. An image from The Servant even graces my “testimonials” page.

RIP Mr. Slocombe.

6 Months of Film Writing

moviemorlocksbanner

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting Cinebeats again but I’ve been busy with various personal projects and obligations. I’ve also recently started writing for Publishers Weekly but I thought I’d finally update with some highlights from TCM’s Movie Morlocks. Here’s some of the more interesting (in my estimation) film related writing & entertaining babble I’ve produced in the last 6 months. You might notice that the topics I cover have gotten a little “lighter” in content and that’s by design. TCM’s blog readers generally prefer light reading about familiar topics so I’ve been trying to accommodate them more often.

March, 2015:
Superhero Saturdays on TCM: BATMAN (1943)
Bold! Noble! Daring! BATWOMAN (1968)
William Mortensen in Hollywood
Hammer Noir: A Poster Gallery
April, 2015:
“Robbery & Murder Were Their Code of Living!” – THE CATS (1968)
A Troy Donahue Top 10
Cooking with Sophia Loren
Orson Welles at One Hundred
May, 2015:
Think Pink: The Enduring Appeal of Lady Penelope
Two on the Run: DEADLY STRANGERS (1975)
The Hollywood Style
June, 2015:
Hollywood Comes to Hearst Castle: Memories & Musings
Men Among Monsters: Remembering Christopher Lee & Richard Johnson
Bugging Out! A Poster Gallery
Classic Hollywood Actors Discuss Women, Beauty & Femininity with Arlene Dahl
July, 2015:
Underrated ’65
Elisabeth Lutyens: Horror Queen of Film Composers
Midsummer Reading Suggestions
Q&A: Michael Kronenberg From the Film Noir Foundation
Birdwatching in Bodega Bay
August, 2015:
A Few Fun Facts About Michael Caine
The Kitten & The Cowboy: When Ann-Margret Met The Duke
Mae Clarke: Frankenstein’s First Bride
Closing Act: Shelley Winters

A Joan Blondell Blogathon

Joan BlondellThe funny & fabulous Joan Blondell

From my latest post at the Movie Morlocks:

“During the month of August TCM highlights the work of a select group of talented performers as part of their annual Summer Under the Stars festival. The Movie Morlocks were asked to select one overlooked star from the Summer Under the Stars line-up to spotlight during a weeklong celebration of their work. Last year the Morlocks highlighted the accomplishments of Woody Strode and before that, Gloria Grahame and Fred MacMurray. This year the Morlocks are setting their sights on Joan Blondell with a blogathon that takes place August 18th – 24th.”
Kona Coast (1968)

I decided to kick start the blogathon with a look at Kona Coast (1968), which was just released on DVD from the Warner Archives and will be playing on TCM August 24th. Kona Coast may not rate as one of the best films that Blondell ever appeared in but it does contain some elements that should appeal to fans of groovy ’60s cinema, including one of the best 7-minute openings I’ve seen in a long time and a terrific score by by composer Jack Marshall. Kona Coast is a fun late night summer movie that probably should be watched while you have a few Mai Tai’s on hand. You can read my full review by following the link below.

Joan Blondell Goes Hawaiian @ TCM’s Classic Movie Blog

I also created a special Flickr gallery of images from Kona Coast that you can find here.

Johnny Cool (1963)

<a href="Elizabeth Montgomery
Elizabeth Montgomery (1963)

I neglected to mention that I wrote a brief piece about the movie Johnny Cool (1963) for Turner Classic Movies last month. It’s an interesting crime film with a standout performance from actress Elizabeth Montgomery who is mostly remembered as the witch with the twitchy nose in Bewitched. Episodes of that popular television series and Johnny Cool were both directed by the same man, Elizabeth Montgomery’s husband William Asher. Unfortunately Johnny Cool isn’t available on DVD yet but it occasionally plays on TCM so keep an eye out for it.

Johnny Cool (1963)

Celebrating Woody Strode

woodys1
Woody Strode in The Italian Connection (1972)

Apologies for the lack of direct updates lately but I’m still getting moved into my new home and my free time is limited at the moment. In the meantime you can still find me posting at the Movie Morlocks every week and you can also occasionally find me posting film related images and other fun stuff over at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats and at my personal home blog Mid-Century Living.

This week the Morlocks are celebrating the life and career of actor Woody Strode. Strode’s acting accomplishments are unfamiliar to many movie fans so I’m really excited about this week long tribute to the man and his work. I decided to write about Woody Strode’s powerful performance in the Italian poliziottesco (crime) film The Italian Connection aka La Mala Ordina (Fernando Di Leo; 1972). I haven’t had the opportunity to write about any of my favorite poliziotteschi movies so I wanted to rectify that and TCM’s decision to celebrate Woody Strode’s career gave me the opportunity to finally focus my attention on a great Italian crime movie. You can find my piece on The Italian Connection as well as many other terrific blog posts about Woody Strode and the film’s he appeared in at TCM’s Movie Morlocks Blog.

Jewel Thieves & Giant Monsters

dogora24

dogora1

After recently reading and writing about Peter H. Brothers’ book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda, I was motivated to watch one of Honda’s lesser-known films that I hadn’t had the opportunity to see yet, Dogora (1964). I’m not sure how I managed to overlook this little gem involving a giant jellyfish from space with an appetite for diamonds but I’m glad that I finally caught up with it on DVD. It’s undoubtedly one of the oddest monster movies produced by Toho Studios in the ’60s and it has quickly become one of my favorite Ishiro Honda films.

Want to read more? You’ll find the rest of my post over at the Movie Morlocks.

Happy Birthday Akira Kurosawa!

sd6
Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog (1949) was the ninth film made by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and I think it’s one of his very best. Like many of my favorite Kurosawa films, Stray Dog features no rogue samurai or mad emperors and it’s set in modern Japan instead of feudal Japan, but it does contain many of the major themes that Kurosawa enjoyed exploring in his work throughout his long career. Stray Dog began life as a novel that the director wrote after being inspired by the crime fiction of French author Georges Simenon, but when Kurosawa adapted his novel for the screen his work took on a life of its own. Stray Dog was transformed into one of the best noir thrillers made in the late ’40s and it’s one of the director’s most compelling films.

The film stars a very young and incredibly handsome Toshiro Mifune in one of his earliest roles as Murakami, an ex-solider turned rookie detective in postwar Japan. The aftermath of the war and the American occupation has taken its toll on the Japanese people who were literally baptized by fire and have been reborn in a cruel and often brutal representation of the modern westernized world. With little food and even less hope, many people have naturally turned to crime in an effort to survive. Others like Detective Murakami are attempting to forge a new life for themselves out of the destruction, but it isn’t easy. After starting his new job Murakami has his gun stolen by a thief (Isao Kimura) who uses it to commit terrible crimes. Guns are a rare commodity in postwar Japan and Murakami’s shame at loosing his weapon forces him to hunt down the criminal so he can retrieve his weapon with help from an older and wiser detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura). This hunt will take them through the war torn city streets of Tokyo’s criminal underworld made up of shanty towns, black markets and seedy night clubs.

Stray Dog takes place during an unprecedented heat-wave and you can literally feel the steam rising from the city streets. Akira Kurosawa enjoyed using the effects of the changing weather such as falling rain, snow storms or the blossoming spring in his films to represent the changing moods of his characters and to signal important events. In Stray Dog the hellish summer heat almost becomes a character of its own.
sd1

sd4

One of the movies most remarkable qualities is the way in which the film makes use of Tokyo’s battered and burned exteriors to create an unsettling mood of destruction and desperation that haunts every frame. It presents a part of Japan that was rarely if ever seen in previous films of the period. Some of the credit for the look and feel of Stray Dog must go to Ishiro Honda who worked as a second-unit director on the movie. Honda is mostly known to western audiences as the director of Godzilla (1956) but before becoming a filmmaker Ishiro Honda served with the Japanese military during WW2 and the experience left him deeply troubled. His firsthand knowledge of the firebombing of Tokyo and a visit to Hiroshima after the war left psychological scars on Ishiro Honda that he never fully recovered from. Honda often seemed compelled to revisit the trauma he had suffered in the films he created later on. During the making of Stray Dog Akira Kurosawa asked Ishiro Honda to explore the ruins of post-war Tokyo and film whatever he saw there. Honda made exceptional use of his personal observations and experience while he was shooting and almost everything that he caught on camera was used in the final cut of Stray Dog.

There’s just no getting around the fact that the aftermath of WW2 and its effect on the people who survived it is what really fuels Kurosawa’s film. Tohsiro Mifune’s detective is an ex-soldier but the criminal he is chasing is also an ex-soldier. Both men survived similar circumstances but afterward they followed very different paths. The detective and the criminal are both “stray dogs” trying to find their way in a new and unfamiliar world that has risen from the ashes of war. As a filmmaker Kurosawa’s sympathies seem to be with no one and everyone. You’ll find very few cookie-cutter bad guys or good guys in the movie. I think that’s a reflection of what postwar Japan was experiencing at a very trying time. The examination of their previous alliances and adversaries is mirrored in Kurosawa’s film. The complexity of the characters that populate Stray Dog is something that you don’t often see in crime movies made during the ’40s and that’s just one of the reasons why it’s so rewarding. Stray Dog is one of the most nuanced film noirs I’ve seen but it’s also one of Kurosawa’s most style-conscious efforts.
sd7

sd3

The film is full of perfectly composed interior shots as well as lingering close-ups that seem to focus on the most mundane things in unexpected ways. Police procedures are meticulously depicted in the film, but unpredictable moments such as a wonderful dance number and a baseball game, keep the movie exciting. There’s an intimacy between Kurosawa and his actors that is reflected in the way the director’s camera lingers on their warm limbs and sweaty brows. It could be argued that women are often reduced to background characters in Kurosawa’s work but Stray Dog features a remarkable performance from Keiko Awaji as a beautiful but troubled showgirl named Harumi. Like many of the best femme fatales, Harumi isn’t given as much screen time as her male costars but she’s unforgettable as the criminal’s feisty girlfriend.

Stray Dog isn’t my favorite Akira Kurosawa film (that would be High and Low) but if you’re looking for the perfect film to watch while celebrating Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday today, I highly recommend giving Stray Dog a look. It’s a thrilling viewing experience and arguably the director’s first true masterpiece which makes it the perfect introduction to his body of work. It also features Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator, the great Toshiro Mifune, in one of his best roles. Mifune is so beautiful in Stray Dog that he’ll take your breath away. Few male actors have looked as good as he does in a white linen suit. You’ve been warned!

Stray Dog airs on TCM today (March 23rd) and it’s currently available on DVD from Criterion.
sd2
“A stray dog sees only what it chases.”

Remembering Yasuharu Hasebe (1932-2009)

btk01Akira Kobayashi in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers (1966)

While I was trying to compile a post for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon currently happening at Wildgrounds I read the sad news that one of my favorite Japanese directors, Yasuharu Hasebe, has died after he contracted pneumonia on June 14th. Hasebe was 77 years old, but he was still an active director and his last project was the police drama The Case Files of Mamoru Yonezawa (Kanshiki: Yonezawa Mamoru no Jikenbo; 2009).

After learning about Yasuharu Hasebe death I immediately decided to put aside my previous plans to write about one of my favorite Japanese actors (Akira Kobayashi) and focus on writing a bit about Hasebe’s work instead. In a sad coincidence, Akira Kobayashi also appeared in some of Hasebe’s best films.

Only a handful of the movies that Yasuharu Hasebe made are currently available on DVD in the US but they showcase the work of an incredibly talented director who injected his action-packed dramas and violent pink films with pertinent social messages and bucket loads of style. Although he’s not as revered as many of his contemporaries, Yasuharu Hasebe was able to masterfully navigate through the Japanese studio system while carving out his own distinct creative path. The director wrote or co-wrote many of his best films, which often touched on similar themes including female oppression and exploitation, as well as race relations and the American occupation of Japan. Yasuharu Hasebe’s films are frequently sited for their orchestrated action and extreme violence but I think that many of them have maintained their power because of the director’s socially conscious scripts and keen sense of mise-en-scène.

Yasuharu Hasebe seemed to enjoy placing his camera in unexpected places and shooting his films in an intimate manner that is often surprisingly innovative. Although I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I firmly believe that the recurring visual motifs and framing techniques seen throughout many of Hasebe films mark his work with an individual flair that is undeniably his own. I wouldn’t hesitate to call Yasuharu Hasebe an “auteur” but I know that I’m in the minority. It’s important to point out (as I’ve often done before) that western film criticism of Japanese cinema is still in its infancy and I suspect that Yasuharu Hasebe’s films will receive much more critical attention and acclaim in the future as more critics and film scholars are exposed to his work.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of my favorite Yasuharu Hasebe films and television productions that are currently available on DVD in the US . . .

Continue reading

Resurrecting Yusaku Matsuda

rwolf01
The many faces of Yusaku Matsuda (1950-1989)

Toru Murakawa’s Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (aka Yomigaeru kinrô; 1979) is a wildly uneven Japanese crime film that left me wishing it had been helmed by another director. The film’s script was adapted from a popular novel by Haruhiko Ooyabu and directors like Seijun Suzuki have had great success turning Ooyabu’s hard-boiled fiction into films, but Toru Murakawa doesn’t have Suzuki’s eye for detail or his pop art sensibility. Resurrection of the Golden Wolf runs much too long and the dramatic filler weighs down the action, but even with its flaws the movie still keeps your attention thanks to the star performance of Yusaku Matsuda (aka Yuusaku Matsuda).

In the film Matsuda plays a ruthless super criminal named Tetsuya Asakura in the grand tradition of Fantomas, Diabolik and Kriminal. During the day he pretends to be a mild-mannered accountant wearing Clark Kent style glasses and a bad wig, but once the sun goes down he leaves his suit and tie act behind and heads to a secret lair to plot his diabolical schemes. When the film opens Tetsuya has just committed his greatest heist yet, which nets him a cool 100 milllion yen. But he soon finds out that the bills are all marked and in turn, utterly useless. He decides to invest the bad bills into heroin in an effort to turn a profit, but this leads Tetsuya into the dark underbelly of the Japanese criminal underworld and things soon become more complicated than he had imagined. Sex, drugs, blackmail and murder are just a few of the film’s key ingredients, but unfortunately the movie never really comes together like it should have.

Some of the action scenes are impressive and creatively shot, but just when you think the film’s picking up steam it seems to stumble and lose its focus. This made watching Resurrection of the Golden Wolf an incredibly frustrating experience at times. I found myself wanting to yell at the screen more than once and I wondered out loud why the director had made certain choices that didn’t pay off like they could have if someone like Seijun Suzuki was behind the camera. The film also has a misogynistic streak that’s a little nasty and hard to stomach. There’s absolutely no interesting female characters in the entire film and the ones that do appear are terribly underwritten and lifeless. But in the final analysis my complaints about the movie stand in the long shadow of Yusaku Matsuda’s unforgettable performance as tough-guy Tetsuya Asakura and he’s the real reason to watch Resurrection of the Golden Wolf.

rwolf02

rwolf2
Yusaku Matsuda in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (1979)

Yusaku Matsuda is a remarkably physical actor and his tall, lean, confident frame owns every scene he appears in. He doesn’t just say his lines, he growls and barks them at his costars. Even fellow actors like the great Sonny Chiba seem intimidated by Matsuda’s powerful presence. Much like his predecessor Joe Shishido, Matsuda is a lone wolf who doesn’t run with the rest of the pack. He inhabits the nasty character of Tetsuya Asakura so completely that you’ll find yourself wondering about the actor’s history. Is he just another talented thespian or does Matsuda have the kind of past that would make real criminals blush? In truth, he’s a bit of an enigma in real-life and on film. Much of Matsuda’s background is a mystery, but it’s believed that he was born in a Japanese brothel and grew up on the island of Honshu before finding himself on the streets of San Francisco. His youthful memories consisted of drunken fights and botched suicide attempts according to Mark Schilling who wrote a detailed biography about the actor for the Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (1997). Matsuda overcame his reckless adolescence and painful past when he returned to Japan and became involved in acting. While working in theater he learned to channel his inner rage and personal turmoil into his performances, which gave him an authenticity that is rarely seen in modern actors

Like many American filmgoers, I first encountered Yusaku Matsuda in Ridley Scott’s action-packed police drama Black Rain back in 1989. In the film Matsuda plays a ruthless Yakuza gangster by the name of Sato who struts through the film sporting dark sunglasses and a long black trench coat. Once you’ve seen the film you’ll never forget his wicked grin and maniacal laugh. He’s arguably the best thing in Ridley Scott’s film. Unfortunately for film audiences, Sato would be Yusaku Matsuda’s last role. The actor was diagnosed with cancer before shooting Black Rain began, but his desire to make a Hollywood film and star opposite popular American actor’s like Michael Douglas made him postpone possible treatment. Could doctors have kept Yusaku Matsuda alive for a few more years? We’ll never know. The disease killed the 40-year-old actor just a few months after Black Rain was released.

Even though Yusaku Matsuda’s career ended prematurely, he did leave us with a rich and fascinating legacy. His talented son Ryuhei Matsuda (Taboo, Cutie Honey, Izo, Rampo Noir, Big Bang Love Juvenile A, Nightmare Detective, Tokyo Serendipity, etc.) is one of the best actors working in Japan today. Like his father before him, Ryuhei Matsuda is also a very physical performer, but his personal approach to acting is completely different. His father is symbolically tied to the image of a lone wolf, but Ryuhei seems to have much more in common with an unwieldy reptile. Instead of a tough-as-nails facade, Ryuhei possess an almost feminine grace as well as incredible beauty that is both charming and disarming.

In Japan Yusaku Matsuda has become an iconic figure and the subject of countless books, film festivals, comics, music tributes and art exhibits, but this legendary actor remains virtually unknown in the US. This is mainly due to the fact that so few of the films and television shows he appeared in are available here and most have never been shown outside of Japan. Information about him at IMDB.com and Wikipedia is woefully sparse and inaccurate, but that might change in the future since the films that Yusaku Matsuda’s starred in are slowly finding their way onto DVD. Hopefully we can look forward to a time when Yusaku Matsuda’s work becomes accessible to a whole new generation of American film fans, historians and critics.

Resurrection of the Golden Wolf was released on DVD by Adness in 2005, but since then the DVD has unfortunately gone out of print. You can currently find new and used copies of the film selling for as low as $2 at Amazon.

Yusaku Matsuda Films Currently Available on DVD in the US:
Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (Toru Murakawa; 1979)
Kagero-za (Seijun Suzuki; 1981)
The Family Game (Yoshimitsu Morita; 1983)
Black Rain (Ridley Scott; 1989)

Recommended Links:
Offical Site for Yusaku Matsuda
Yusaku Matsuda Forever (Fan site)
Offical Site for Ryuhei Matsuda (Yusaku Matsuda’s son)

20 Favorite DVD Releases of 2008: Part I.

cinebtv08

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but overall 2008 was somewhat of a lackluster year for new Region 1 DVD releases of ’60s and ’70s era films when compared to the previous two years (See: 2006 and 2007). Some of my favorite DVD companies such as BCI Eclipse and most recently New Yorker Films have folded. Boutique DVD companies are releasing fewer products and what is being released is often of questionable quality. With the failing economy and the rise in popularity of Blu-ray discs, it seems like the number of new worthwhile DVD releases might continue to drop dramatically in 2009. Many companies such as Blue Underground and Criterion are choosing to re-release films that have already been available on DVD, while big studios like Warner Brothers and Paramount seem to be focusing a lot of their energy on re-releasing titles on Blu-ray instead of releasing old films from their vaults.

Even with this disappointing turn of events, fans of ’60s and ’70s cinema were still offered some great DVD box sets from companies like Lions Gate as well as Criterion. Sony Pictures has also released an interesting batch of DVDs under their new “Martini Movies” label. And with curiosity about Japanese pink films on the rise, companies like Mondo Macabro and Media Blasters took full advantage of this and released some unexpected gems last year. 2008 was also a great year for British horror fans. Besides multiple Hammer DVD releases including the Icons of Horror: Hammer Films Collection and the Icons of Adventure Film Collection, there were also some great Amicus films released such as Freddie Francis’ The Skull and The Deadly Bees.

In previous years I’ve shared a list of my Top 30 Favorite DVD releases, but this year I’m narrowing my list down to my favorite Top 20 releases. This is mainly due to my disappointment with last year’s DVD offerings and I wanted to focus on a limited selection of new releases that I really enjoyed. As always, my list only features films that were originally released between 1960 and 1979 on Region 1 DVD. I tried not to include any DVD re-releases on my list or TV shows, but there were plenty to choose from. My selections are listed in alphabetical order and I’ll be posting them in two parts in the coming week. Below are selections #1-10.

sp
Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in La Piscine (1969)

1. Alain Delon – Five Film Collection (Lions Gate)
Anytime an Alain Delon film finds it’s way onto DVD for the first time there’s a celebration in my home! The Lions Gate Alain Delon DVD boxset was a real treat and offered viewers the opportunity to see five films starring my favorite French actor. I thought the best films in the collection were easily La Piscine aka The Swimming Pool (1969) and Diaboliquement vôtre aka Diabolically Yours (1967), which I reviewed back in 2007. But The Widow Couderc and Notre Histoire also make for some worthwhile viewing. Le Gitan aka The Gypsy (1975) is a bit like sitting through Zorro II, but it’s missing the catchy theme song. I actually enjoy Delon’s original Zorro (1975) film, but Le Gitan left me a little cold. For more information about this DVD release please see my previous comments about it here.

andersontapes
Christopher Walken, Stan Gottlieb and Sean Connery in The Anderson Tapes (1971)

2. The Anderson Tapes (Sony Pictures)
The Anderson Tapes (1971) is one of the hidden gems that can be found in the recent batch of “Martini Movies” released by Sony Pictures. This ’70s caper film was directed by Sidney Lumet when he was at the top of his game and it’s based on a novel written by Lawrence Sanders. The movie features a great cast that includes Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Alan King and a very young and incredibly cute Christopher Walken in his first major film role. The premise of the film involves a group of con men that Anderson (Sean Connery) brings together in order to pull off a major heist at an upper-class apartment building in New York. Unfortunately for Anderson everyone he contacts is under surveillance for different reasons, so every move he makes is being carefully monitored. Sidney Lumet does an impressive job of filming the events as they unfold through the use of surveillance cameras and sound. And I really liked the adult way that Connery’s relationship with Dyan Cannon was handled. The film was released a year before the Watergate scandal made headlines and three years before Francis Ford Coppala’s seminal film The Conversation, which tackled similar themes. I was surprised by how much The Anderson Tapes had obviously influenced Coppola’s later films and I’m not just referring to The Conversation. Clearly writer Lawrence Sanders and director Sidney Lumet were well aware of the way surveillance was starting to play a role in modern society and the film does a terrific job of exploring the way it invades the life of one unsuspecting man. Quincy Jones created the film’s soundtrack and I think is one of the composers most experimental and unusual efforts. Jones used electronic sounds and noise to convey various emotions and ideas in the film and it works really well with the way Lumet handles the material. The film is presented in widescreen and the print looks terrific. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of extras on the DVD besides the original trailer and the Martini Movie features which come with every one of their releases.

jack2
Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976)

3. Assault! Jack the Ripper (Mondo Macabro)
This is not an easy film to recommend and many will undoubtedly be shocked by the film’s subject matter. Some hardened horror fans will even shy away from the graphic nature of the film, but Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976) is easily one of the most transgressive and fascinating violent pink movies I’ve seen and in turn, one of my favorite DVD releases of last year. Assault! Jack the Ripper was directed by Yasuharu Hasebe who has made some of my favorite Japanese films including Black Tight Killers (1966), Bloody Territories (1969), Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973) and the Stray Cat Rock films. The movie centers around the violent and erotic adventures of young working couple who accidentally discover that they get sexual satisfaction from torturing and murdering other women. The film used true crimes such as the notorious Chicago nurse murders committed by Richard Speck for inspiration. It’s propelled by an incredible Euro-flavored soundtrack and some breathtaking cinematography. Assault! Jack the Ripper is not light viewing and audiences should be prepared to watch the DVD extras that come with the film in order to get a deeper understanding of the movie’s subversive themes, but it’s well worth the effort for adventurous viewers. The DVD extras include an insightful interview with author Jasper Sharp who wrote Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, extensive notes about the film and a great documentary called The Erotic Empire which discusses Nikkatsu Studios “Romantic Pornographic” aka Roman Porno films.

beyes
Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973)

4. Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (Special Edition) (BCI / Eclipse)
A lot of Paul Naschy films found their way onto DVD last year, but Carlos Aured’s Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973) was my favorite of the bunch. In this Spanish giallo Paul Naschy plays a deeply troubled ex-con who gets hired as a caretaker for a lavish estate owned by three beautiful sisters who seem to all vie for Naschy’s affections. After Naschy takes the job, a serial killer begins terrorizing the countryside and removing the eyes of his blue-eyed victims. Is Naschy the cold-blooded killer or is someone else to blame for the horrible murders? You’ll have to watch the film to find out! No one in Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll is particularly likable, but I found that aspect of the film strangely compelling. Carlos Aured does a good job with the dream sequences in the film and Paul Naschy ‘s script features plenty of unusual twists and turns to keep viewers entertained. Fans of European thrillers should find the film enjoyable. The DVD comes with some great extras including audio commentary with Paul Naschy and director Carlos Aured.

dgb
Reiko Oshida in Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

5. Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams (Media Blasters)
For more information about this release please see my lengthy review of the film here.

feedom
Serge Gainsbourg, Delphine Seyrig and John Abbey in Mr. Freedom (1969)

6. The Delirious Fictions of William Klein – Eclipse Series 9 (Eclipse / Criterion)
This Eclipse/Criterion DVD collection was one of the best things the company released last year and for my money, possibly the best DVD film collection of 2008. Previously William Klein’s films were incredibly hard to come by and the prints that were floating around from various sources were often very poor. Criterion’s choice to release three of William Klein’s films was a real surprise and a treat for anyone like myself who enjoys avant-garde cinema from the ’60s. Director William Klein was a fashion photographer and an American expat living in Paris when he made these films, which satirize the fashion industry, pervading cultural values and American political policies. Although some may see the films as mere products of the times that they were made in, I think they’re still extremely relevant today. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? aka Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966) and Mr. Freedom (1969) are the standout features in this three film set and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite from the two. Both films feature some incredible visuals and lots of dark humor. The Model Couple (1977) is also well worth a look even if it’s lacking the style and intellectual punch of the other two films in the collection. This terrific set of films deserves a lot more attention than I can give it now but I briefly mentioned how excited I was about this DVD release last year and you can find that post along with a clip from Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? here. Unfortunately like all the Eclipse/Criterion DVD releases this DVD collection is very bare bones, but still well worth owning.

gorgon
The Gorgon (1964)

7. Icons of Horror: Hammer Films (Sony Pictures)
I’m always happy to see any Hammer horror films finding their way onto DVD and the 2-disc Icons of Horror collection contained one of my long-time favorite Hammer productions, Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) as well as Seth Holt’s exceptional thriller Scream of Fear (1961). This four film collection also featured Michael Carreras’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). I hadn’t had the opportunity to see Terence Fisher’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll before this DVD release and I was really surprised by how well done the film was. I personally think it’s one of the better films based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story thanks to Paul Massie’s excellent duel performance as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is definitely the weakest film in the collection, which still means it’s better than most of the horror films you’ll find playing at your local multiplex right now. All the films look terrific and are presented in widescreen. Terence Fisher and Seth Holt were two of the finest directors that worked with Hammer studios so it’s nice to see them both represented in this great new DVD set. Unfortunately it suffers from a lack of extras which plagues many Hammer DVD releases, but it’s hard to complain when you can currently purchase all four films for a mere $16.99 at Amazon (see link above).

sr
Oliver Reed and Carol Lynley in The Shuttered Room (1967)

8. It!/The Shuttered Room (Warner Home Video)
I have so much I want to say about these two joint British/American productions that I hate trying to sum up my feelings in one paragraph so I may revisit them later, but in an effort to get this list finished up I’ll try and formulate a few quick thoughts. It! (1966) is a highly entertaining horror movie directed by Herbert J. Leder and it stars the talented Roddy McDowall. McDowall plays a mentally disturbed museum curator (playing homage to Anthony Perkins) who finds himself in all kinds of trouble after he displays a strange statue at the museum where he’s employed. The highly improbable plot gets more and more ridiculous as the film unfolds, but I won’t spoil it for potential viewers. It! is a really fun movie that has to be seen to be believed and Roddy McDowall is terrific in it. The second film in this two movie set is David Greene’s The Shuttered Room (1967) and it’s the real reason you should purchase this DVD. The movie features a great cast and two exceptional performances from the film’s star Carol Lynley and her co-star, the late great Oliver Reed. The script is based on a story written by August Derleth, who was H. P. Lovecraft’s posthumous collaborator and Derleth used many of Lovecraft’s own notes and ideas to compile his tale. The finale result may seem a little uneven to some, but I think The Shuttered Room is one of the few films that successfully captures the unsettling mood found in some of Lovecraft’s best fiction. David Greene’s direction is impressive at times, but the film is really elevated by the experimental avant-garde score composed by controversial British jazz musician Basil Kirchin. Kirchin composed music for other British horror films such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and The Mutations (1974), but his score for The Shuttered Room just might be his most effective. Unfortunately this is another bare bones DVD release with no worthwhile extras, but it’s great to see these deserving horror films finally being made available. I’d previously only seen washed out and cut-up prints of The Shuttered Room on television so I was thrilled by the print quality of this new DVD from Warner.

led2
Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos (1963)

9. Le Doulos (Criterion)
Le Doulos (1963) is one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s earliest crime films (aka “policier”) and while it’s missing some of the polish of the director’s later efforts, it’s still an exceptional film featuring a truly memorable performance from the great Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo charms his way through the film playing a surprisingly ruthless gangster named Silien, who may or may not be a police informant referred to as a “Le doulos” in French slang terms. The film borrows from many classic noir films, but Melville brings his own trademark style and edginess to the proceedings, which gives Le Doulos lots of modern appeal. Criterion did an exceptional job on their release of Le Doulos and one can only hope that they’ll continue to release more of Melville’s films on DVD in the future. Besides a beautifully restored print of the film, the new DVD comes with some great extras including archival interviews with Melville and actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani, audio commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, the original theatrical trailer and a thoughtful new essay by film critic Glenn Kenny.

ludwig2
Helmut Berger in Ludwig (1972)

10. Ludwig (KOCH Lorber Films)
Few directors know how to create epic historical dramas like Luchino Visconti and Ludwig (1972) is one of the director’s most ambitious efforts. This four hour film is not without its flaws, but if you take the time to watch this dramatic retelling of the life of the “mad” Kind Ludwig II of Bavaria you’ll be rewarded with some lush cinematography, grandiose set designs, fabulous period costumes and great performances from the film’s impressive cast. Like many of Visconti’s previous efforts, the film offers viewers an intelligent critique of the powerful and wealthy, while celebrating their extravagances and mourning the passage of time. One of my favorite actors is the Austrian born Helmut Berger who stars as King Ludwig here and this film offered him one of his most expansive and fascinating roles. Visconti and Berger were long-time lovers and they work extremely well together. Visconti indulged Berger during the making of Ludwig and gave the actor plenty of freedom to bring the mad King to life, but he also knew when to rein him in. The film also features Trevor Howard as composer Richard Wagner, Silvano Mangano as Wagner’s mistress Cosima Von Buelow and Romy Schneider was smartly cast as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The lovely and talented Romy Schneider had previously become a star due to her sympathetic portrayal of the young Empress Elisabeth in the popular Austrian Sisi films and she brings a lot of experience and skill to her role. This impressive two disc DVD set from KOCH Lorber Films features a digitally restored and re-mastered widescreen print of the film and it’s loaded with extras including a documentary about director Luchino Visconti, a profile of actress Silvano Mangano and an interview with costume designer Piero Tosi. I wish one or two of the extras included with the DVD focused a bit more on the film’s star Helmut Berger, but that’s a minor complaint. This release is a real treat for Luchino Visconti fans like myself.

The second half of my Favorite DVDs of 2008 list can be found here.