Seth Holt’s The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny (1965)

Evil nannies that are determined to harm the innocent children they care for have become a popular recurring menace in many horror films over the years and last week one of the best nasty nanny movies was finally released on DVD for the first time.

I originally saw Seth Holt’s chilling British thriller The Nanny (1965) when I was just a kid and it terrified me. I haven’t seen the film in its entirety in many years so I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my fond memories of first watching it but The Nanny managed to exceed my expectations. The great thrillers Hammer produced during the sixties and seventies are often overlooked by critics since they don’t contain vampires, werewolves or any mad doctors but many of them are just as good or better than many of the monster movies the studio made. Great Hammer thrillers such as Freddie Francis’ Paranoiac (1963) and Peter Collinson’s Straight on Till Morning (1972) are some of my favorite Hammer films and The Nanny is another one of the studio’s best and most unusual efforts.

The film stars the late great actress Bette Davis whose 100th birthday was recently celebrated by 20th Century Fox with a wonderful DVD set titled Bette Davis Centenary Celebration Collection, which includes The Nanny as well as four other Davis films. Bette Davis isn’t a name that most film fans associate with Hammer Studios but the actress made two films for Hammer during the sixties. The first one was The Nanny, which she starred in after filming two successful gothic thrillers in Hollywood (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte) and afterward she appeared in Hammer’s black comedy The Anniversary (1968), which was directed by the talented Roy Ward Baker.

In The Nanny Bette Davis gives one of her most remarkable and nuanced performances as a dutiful servant of an upper class British family who has spent her entire life caring for the children of wealthy individuals and neglecting herself. As the film opens we discover that the family Davis’ character currently works for has lost their little girl in a horrible accident. They blame their precocious 10-year old son Joey (William Dix) for her accidental drowning and they’re struggling to deal with his eminent return home after the boy has spent two years away at a juvenile psychiatric facility for disturbed children. When Joey’s father (James Villiers) and the nanny arrive at the school to take Joey home, the audience is introduced to the boy in a beautifully shot but rather disturbing scene that’s reminiscent of Bud Cort’s mock suicide in the unforgettable opening of Harold and Maude made six years later. Joey’s dark sense of humor is clearly troubling to the adults around him and it might seem strange that a 10-year-old would be preoccupied with death. But when a child comes face to face with mortality at an early age it’s not unusual for them to feel the urge to act out in various ways. Before the boy leaves the school a doctor tells Joey’s father that he has developed a strange aversion to middle-aged females and on the ride home Joey makes it clear that he doesn’t like or trust his middle-aged nanny. Since the nanny is played brilliantly by Bette Davis it’s not hard to understand why she might make the boy uncomfortable.

The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny (1965)

Davis was an unsettling presence in horror films in the sixties and she easily generates a kind of dread and sense of unease when she’s on screen. With a simple raise of her thick arched eyebrow she can send chills down your spine. Young Joey is so frightened by her that he immediately moves into a room with a window near a fire escape so he can quickly get in an out of his family’s luxurious apartment if the need arises. He also refuses to eat the food that his nanny prepares for him and he won’t take a bath until his mother (Wendy Craig) makes the nanny promise to stay out of the bathroom. His gruff father and emotionally unstable mother become increasingly frustrated by their son’s behavior and wonder if they should have kept him locked up. The nanny seems to come to the boy’s defense at first but as the film unfolds she also turns on Joey and the audience is left to wonder who is to blame for the boy’s seemingly erratic behavior. Is the boy’s paranoia justified? Or should the family have kept little Joey locked away forever?

(WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)

After Joey’s father is forced to leave home on business, the boy is left alone with his mother and nanny who have clearly developed an odd sort of codependent relationship over the years. The nanny has been with the family for a very long time and also took care of Joey’s mother when she was a young girl. Joey’s mother is played wonderfully by the British actress Wendy Craig and it’s hard not to sympathize with her since she’s clearly suffering a deep depression following the unexpected death of her young daughter. As the perfect upper class family life she has long imagined for herself begins to unravel all around her, she regresses to a child-like state herself and the nanny is forced to brush her hair and even feed her. When she suddenly falls ill due to food poisoning and must be taken to the hospital, all fingers point to Joey as being the culprit but Joey blames the nanny. He later confesses to his cute teenage neighbor (Pamela Franklin) that he believes the nanny also killed his sister and is now trying to kill him as well. Joey’s accusations are hard to ignore and it’s not much of a surprise when the audience discovers that the nanny is the real source of horror in the film even if a few minor red herrings attempt to focus the audiences attention on the troubled young boy.

What is surprising is the incredibly creative way director Seth Holt chose to shot the film and his wonderful use of flashbacks to show the events as they originally happened. The director also creates some truly terrifying moments in the movie such as when Joey’s aunt (Jill Bennett) who suffers from a terrible heart condition spots Davis standing next to the boy’s bedroom door with a pillow in her hand. Dear old nanny intends to suffocate the child in his sleep but she sweetly tells Joey’s aunt that she is only trying to make the boy more comfortable by bringing him another pillow.

Bette Davis is really remarkable in The Nanny and her understated performance in the film often stands out in stark contrast to her other popular roles in horror films from the same period. Even though the relationship between director Seth Holt and Bette Davis was problematic on the set by all accounts, Davis did manage to follow the director’s recommendation to play the role extremely low-key and internalize aspects of her character that could have easily boiled over the top and found their way onto the screen. The young actor William Dix is also extremely good as Joey. I’m personally very critical of child actors and I often find them too mannered and unbelievable in their roles. But young Dix brings a realism to his role as Joey in The Nanny that is really remarkable at times and he seems to understand his character in ways that would completely escape many experienced adult actors.

The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny (1965)

The film’s script was written by Hammer luminary Jimmy Sangster and based on a book by author Marryam Modell (using the pseudonym Evelyn Piper) who also wrote Bunny Lake Is Missing, which was adapted into another terrific film by Otto Preminger the same year. The Nanny and Bunny Lake is Missing share somewhat similar themes. Both stories feature children in peril and in order to save them someone must try and convince disbelieving authority figures that a child is in danger or being harmed. I don’t know if Marryam Modell had any experience with child abuse herself, but there is an underlying attitude in both of her stories that suggests she might have.

The talented director Seth Holt began his career co-directing and editing films for Britain’s Ealing Studios, including the wonderful 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night. Holt is mostly known for the entertaining thrillers he made with Hammer Studios and his name rarely comes up when critics are talking about the British New Wave and various kitchen sink dramas but it should. Holt’s first film is a remarkable crime drama called Nowhere to Go that was co-written by Kenneth Tynan who helped usher in the era of “angry young men” as an important theater critic. Nowhere to Go is a stylish modern crime film with a great jazz score by Dizzy Reece and a bleak ending that’s somewhat reminiscent of Godard’s Breathless (1960). It’s an important film in the evolution of British cinema but it’s often overlooked and deserves a wider audience. Seth Holt was also responsible for the impressive editing work in Karel Reisz’s seminal British film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).

While watching The Nanny I was extremely impressed with the way Holt managed to subtly weave important themes found within the best films of the British New Wave such as the effects of poverty, class divides and youth rebellion into a Hammer horror film. Even though The Nanny could be viewed as a simple thriller about a tormented and troubled child being pursued by a psychotic nanny, underlying that is the complicated background of the nanny herself who was forced into a life of servitude do to her status and background. Her position in life has dire consequences for her own family as well as those she works for. During the film the audience is given the opportunity to sympathize with Davis’ character who is obviously deeply disturbed. This is an incredibly adult and modern approach to take in any horror film about a potential child killer even by today’s standards.

In an unforgettable scene that takes place in a poor British neighborhood clearly suffering from economic and social conditions that plague the lower classes; Bette Davis is forced to confront her past and the death of her own daughter due to a horribly botched back-alley abortion and we watch her quietly fall apart. Unlike the wealthy mother of Joey who lost her own daughter and now relies on the nanny to groom her and feed her, Davis’ character has no one but herself to rely on. In her pain she turns inward and clearly doesn’t like what she finds there. In her psychotic state she ends up cruelly lashing out at the most vulnerable thing she can, an innocent, wealthy, sheltered and pampered little child that she’s been forced to care for who will never know the kind of economic disparity that she’s been struggling with her entire life.

Davis’ last Oscar nomination was for her role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and it’s often considered her greatest role of the sixties, but in my opinion her greatest achievement as an actress during that decade might be found in The Nanny.

As I mentioned above, The Nanny is available on DVD as part of the 20th Century Fox Bette Davis Centenary Celebration Collection, which is now selling at Amazon or you can purchase The Nanny individually. The film has been beautifully restored by 20th Century Fox and it really looks terrific. The DVD also comes with some nice extras such as poster, stills and lobby card galleries, TV spots, the original trailer and restoration comparisons. The Nanny should also be available for rent online at Greencine and Netflix. If you’d like to see more images from the film please see my Flickr Gallery for The Nanny.

DVD of the Week: Alain Delon – Five Film Collection

Alain Delon in La Piscine (1970)
A smokin hot Alain Delon in La Piscine (1970)

This week Lion’s Gate is releasing their Alain Delon – Five Film Collection, which features the incredibly handsome and talented French actor starring in Diaboliquement vôtre (aka Diabolically Yours, 1967), La Piscine (aka The Swimming Pool, 1970), La Veuve Couderc (aka The Widow Couderc, 1974), Le Gitan (aka The Gypsy, 1975) and Notre Histoire (aka Separate Rooms, 1984). I haven’t had the chance to pick up the collection myself so I can’t personally comment on the quality of the new Lion’s Gate set, but according to other sources this 3 Disc DVD collection presents all 5 films in widescreen with English subtitles.

I’ve only previously had the opportunity to see Julien Duvivier’s Diaboliquement vôtre, which I reviewed last year and Jacques Deray’s La Piscine, which features Delon along with the lovely actress Romy Schinder who he had a longtime relationship with off screen, as well as the British actress and pop icon Jane Birkin and the talented actor Maurice Ronet who had previously starred with Alain Delon in René Clément’s brilliant 1960 thriller Purple Noon. Both Diaboliquement vôtre and La Piscine are highly recommended if you enjoy suspenseful French thrillers.

From the films that I haven’t seen, I’m most looking forward to watching La Veuve Couderc, which was directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre and costars the wonderful French actress Simone Signoret. Once I get the opportunity to see the film I hope to share my thoughts about it here.

The Alain Delon – Five Film Collection can currently be purchased at Amazon for $29.99 and that’s only about $6 per movies. You can also find the films available for rent at Greencine and Netflix.

DVD of the Week: Pierrot le fou (1965)

I’ve been trying to write out my thoughts about Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) for days, but even after watching the film twice and enjoying all the wonderful extras included with the fantastic new Criterion DVD, I’m finding words inadequate to describe how much I’ve fallen in love with this wonderful movie in so short a time. My love for Pierrot le fou is so fresh, so passionate, so alive and so completely unabashed that I feel a little like a silly schoolgirl with a terrible crush on the cute new boy in class.

I’ve been curious about seeing Pierrot le fou for about 15 years after I came across still shots from the film featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo with his face painted bright blue. I also saw brief clips of the party scene from Pierrot le fou a few years ago in the fascinating Samuel Fuller documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (Adam Simon; 1996) and became even more intrigued, but for one reason or another I never got around to watching it. I had hoped to attend the theatrical revival of the film last year, but sadly I wasn’t able to. As far as I know Pierrot le fou was never shown in the San Francisco Bay Area last year and the official Janus site seems to confirm this.

Thanks to Criterion’s recent DVD release of Pierrot le fou I was finally able to experience this amazing film for the first time and now I deeply regret not seeing it sooner. Pierrot le fou manages to combine everything I love about my two favorite Godard films (Contempt, 1963 and Week End, 1967) into one brilliant piece of work, while referencing every film the director had made before and predicting many of the more radical films he would make afterward. The basic plot of Pierrot le fou involves an unhappily married man named Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who meets up with an old flame named Marianne (Anna Karina) and the two abandon their old lives and begin a life of violent crime together. Unfortunately their combustible relationship begins to unravel under the stress of life on the run, but between their verbal sparing and love-making the audience is treated to a smart political and social satire with slapstick style comedy and an occasional musical number.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot le fou borrows elements from classic crime films such as Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) and Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950), but the film also takes a lot of inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard’s own Breathless (1960). It’s also worth noting that Pierrot le fou pre-dates Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty’s less interesting and more conventional Bonnie and Clyde (1967) by two years. For my money, none of the previously mentioned films come close to matching the offbeat magic conjured up in Pierrot Le fou by Godard and his two incredibly charming stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina.

Pierrot le fou combines some of Jean-Luc Godard’s best writing and directing with stunning color photography by Godard’s longtime collaborator Raoul Coutard. The film manages to effortlessly mix comic-book style aesthetics with a painterly eye and the outcome is so wonderfully modern that Pierrot le fou still feels fresh and alive some 45 years after it was made.

Criterion’s magnificent two-disc restored widescreen DVD presentation of Pierrot le fou looks absolutely stunning and it’s loaded with fantastic extras, including a new video interview with actress Anna Karina who’s now 68 years old, and she offers some wonderful insights into the making of the film. The DVD also includes a new video program with audio commentary by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin called A Pierrot Primer, a fascinating fifty-minute French documentary about director Jean-Luc Godard and his personal & working relationship with Anna Karina called Godard, L’Amour, La Poesie, a wonderful archival interview with the young and extremely adorable Jean-Paul Belmondo conducted while he was shooting Pierrot le fou and a brief archival piece about the Venice Film festival in 1965 that features interviews with Godard and Anna Karina. The DVD also contains the original theatrical trailer and a nice booklet with a new essay by critic Richard Brody, a 1969 review by Andrew Sarris and a 1965 interview with Godard. Pierrot le fou retails for $39.95 and it’s currently available from Amazon for $29.95. Criterion has really kicked-started 2008 by releasing some truly wonderful films on NTSC Region 1 DVD in recent weeks and I applaud them for it.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

If you would like to see more screen shots from the film please see my Pierrot le fou Flickr gallery. I’ve also uploaded the wonderful song Ma ligne de chance that was sung by Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Pierrot le fou for anyone who would like to hear it.

Ma ligne de chance (Anna Karina & Jean-Paul Belmondo)

DVD of the Week: Delinquent Girl Boss – Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

One of my favorite films from Panik House’s 2005 Pinky Violence DVD Collection was Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess (Zubekô banchô: zange no neuchi mo nai, 1971), which was directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi for Toei and starred the strikingly cute Japanese actress and occasional pop idol Reiko Oshida. Not only was Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess one of the best looking films in the collection, featuring some truly impressive cinematography and direction, but I also really liked Reiko Oshida’s take on playing a bad girl trying to make good in the world. Unlike the other lovely and talented ladies that have starred in numerous pinky violence films such as Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Oshida seemed to have a sense of humor about her roles and she always wore a sly grin on her face. Besides an occasional gratuitous panty shot, she also managed to keep her clothes on in all her films even when her co-stars were baring all.

This week Media Blasters released the first film in the Delinquent Girl Boss movie series called Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams (Zubeko Bancho: Yumei Wa Yoru Hiraku, 1970) on DVD and it’s my DVD Pick of the Week. Due to a rather loose script, the film doesn’t exactly pack the same powerful dramatic punch that Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess had, but the movie still features some really impressive visuals and great musical numbers that more than make up for the writing. Overall it’s a terrific addition to the slowly growing stable of pinky violence films now available on DVD in the U.S. and it’s sure to impress anyone who enjoys the work of the talented Japanese director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi.

Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams was Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s directorial debut and he also co-wrote the script for the film. Yamaguchi would go on to make other films in the Delinquent Girl Boss series and many other Japanese action films featuring tough female stars including the Wandering Ginza Butterfly series with Meiko Kaji and the Sister Street Fighter series with Etsuko Shihomi. I enjoy all of his his films, but I personally prefer the director’s Delinquent Girl Boss efforts, because I tend to favor the plots, as well as popular Japanese music, modern design and period fashions, which are often on display in these films.

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Much like Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess, which was the fourth film in the series, Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dream opens with a small riot breaking out at a juvenile faculty for troubled young women. In the series Reiko Oshida plays an orphan named Rika who grew up in Yokohama. Rika is a rebellious 19 year-old struggling with her aversion to authority figures and her obvious urge to set things right whenever she feels injustices are taking place. After she’s released from the juvenile faculty she gets a job at a hostess club in Shinjuku where many of her fellow delinquents now work. The owner of the hostess club was once a delinquent herself, but she’s become a sort of surrogate mother to the girls who work at her club, as well as the lone male host who services gay clients there. Unfortunately things get complicated when some local yakuza start shoving their weight around and trying to gain control over her club. The yakuza are also selling drugs and managing their own group of tough ladies who act as drug pushers in the neighborhood. Throughout the course of the film Rika becomes somewhat of a vigilante in an effort to help her friends and her boss, but her conflicting emotions and hardened criminal background are often at odds. She’s a tough girl who knows how to take care of herself and put others in their place, but she’s also got a warm heart and clearly cares about her friends and their futures.

As I mentioned above, Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams seems to suffer a little thanks to the script, which was probably due to Kazuhiko Yamaguchi inexperience as a writer at the time. But the film also has some truly impressive moments, including a beautiful romantic beach scene between Reiko Oshida and her male co-star (Hayato Tani). It takes place among a bunch of huge cement structures resting on the sand and adds a dream-like quality to the film. The talented cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa should be co-credited for the amazing look of the Delinquent Girl Boss movies. Nakazawa worked with the acclaimed director Kinji Fukasaku on many of his best crime films including Sympathy for the Underdog (1971), Street Mobster (1972) and Graveyard of Honor (1975). He’s also partially responsible for the fantastic look of the Female Prisoner Scorpion films and he brings the same creativity to the Delinquent Girl Boss series. These films are a great showcase for Nakazawa’s dynamic color photography and director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s imaginative compositions. Both men had the ability to turn what could easily be considered a simple exploitive genre film into art.

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Yamaguchi and Nakazawa also do an amazing job of capturing Shinjuko nightlife in the early seventies. The exterior shots of the city are really impressive and the psychedelic club scenes and musical acts featured in the film are stylishly shot and full of energy. I was thrilled to discover that the Japanese girl group Golden Half appears in Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams along with folk pop idol Keiko Fuji. Since I love Japanese pop music from this period, I really enjoyed the musical numbers even though Golden Half only performs their popular song Yellow Cherry (Kiroii Sakurambo), which happens to be the same song the group sang in Yasuharu Hasebe’s pinky violence film Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter. Both of the films were released in 1970, but they were made by different studios. Toei was responsible for the Delinquent Girl Boss series and Nikkatsu produced the Stray Cat Rock films, but both studios obviously wanted to cash in on the popularity of Golden Half at the time and their hit song.

Keiko Fuji sings the film’s memorable opening theme song and she has an interesting, but extremely small role in the film. Keiko Fuji was popular among some radical student groups in Japan, probably due to her ability to mix traditional enka style ballads with modern popular music. In the film she strums a guitar while singing a very traditional sounding song that seems to deeply touch the women working at the hostess bar. It’s a nice moment in the film and Keiko does a good with her brief part, but I wish she had been given a little more to do in the movie. I hope to write a bit more about the music featured in pinky violence films soon.

Besides the appearance of Keiko Fuji, the social and political commentary that can sometimes be found in pinky violence films seems rather lowkey here, but there are a few moments in Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams that I felt reflected the complicated power struggles going on between criminal men who liked to flex their muscles in postwar Japan and the independent women who were often forced to have business dealings with them. In an odd twist, the young female junkie in the film suffering horribly from drug dependency also has dyed blond hair and wears a dress emblazoned with the American flag. I have no idea if the director was trying to hint at America’ involvement in the underground drug market in Japan after WW2 or implying something even more subversive, but it’s possible. I also found it amusing that Reiko Oshida wears a kind of mod miniskirt version of a Native American Indian costume when she helps take down the bad guys at the end of the movie. It’s hard to overlook the possible anti-occupation sentiments in that small gesture.

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

Delinquent Girl Boss - Blossoming Night Dreams (1970)

The Delinquent Girl Boss series is really one of the highlights of the recent wave of pinky violence films being released on DVD. If you’re new to the genre or just curious about these types of Japanese films, the Delinquent Girl Boss movies make a great introduction to the genre since they’re creatively shot and tend to feature mild violence and eroticism.

Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams is available on DVD from Media Blasters on their Exploitation Digital label for $29.99 and it’s currently selling at Amazon for $26.99. The DVD features a nice looking anamorphic widescreen print of the film, as well as a photo gallery and the original trailer. As I mentioned above, the fourth film in the Delinquent Girl Boss series was released on DVD in 2005 from Panik House and it’s available as part of their terrific Pinky Violence Collection. Hopefully the second and thirdDelinquent Girl Boss films will find their way onto DVD soon. Thankfully the films in the series can be enjoyed individually and they don’t have to be watched in any kind of order, but I would recommend seeing Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams before Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess if you’re new to the series.

If you’d like to see more images from the film please see my Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams Flickr Gallery.

Also worth mentioning is the recent DVD release of Jess Franco’s Eugenie de Sade (1970) from Blue Underground, which was reviewed by Robert Monell over at I’m in a Jess Franco State of Mind. I haven’t had the opportunity to view it yet myself, but I’m looking forward to it.

I’m still compiling my Best DVDs of 2007 List and it’s taking me a bit longer to finish then I had expected, but I promise that I’ll be posting it here soon so keep an eye out for it!

DVD of the Week: This Sporting Life (1963)

I was hoping I’d get the chance to watch the new Criterion release of Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) this week, but unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to. Since I’ve seen the film before and I have great respect for it, I really have no problem recommending the new Criterion disc. It promises to be one of the best DVD releases of the year. I hope to delve deeper into the film in the future after I have a chance to view it again so you can expect to see more posts from me about the British New Wave and British cinema in general in 2008.

In the meantime, if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Anderson’s gritty bleak drama yet, I highly recommend This Sporting Life. The film was produced by the talented filmmaker Karel Reisz (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, etc.) and his influence on the production seems somewhat apparent when you watch the film. This Sporting Life is really a pivotal film in Lindsay Anderson’s directorial career and undoubtedly one of the most important films to come out of the British New Wave. It also features one of Richard Harris‘ finest performances.

The new Criterion DVD boasts a lot of great extras including multiple short films by Lindsay Anderson, audio commentary by Paul Ryan and David Storey, a documentary and interviews with people who knew and worked with the director. Criterion’s two disc DVD presentation of This Sporting Life is currently available from Amazon for $34.99 and the film is also available for rent from online sources like Greencine and Netflix.

DVD of the Week: The Naked Prey (1966)

This week I’m kick-starting my 2008 DVD Picks of the Week with one of my longtime favorites, Cornel Wilde’s brilliantly executed and often neglected masterpiece, The Naked Prey (1966), which was released on DVD by Criterion this week. Coincidently, back in July of 2007 the inquisitive Dennis Cozzalio asked his blog readers the following question:

What movie, either currently available on DVD or not, has never received the splashy collector’s edition treatment you think it deserves? What would such an edition include?

My head swam when I was considering my response because frankly there are hundreds of films that are not available on DVD that I would love to see get released as “splashy collector’s editions.” Of late I’ve often wondered why some of the most important American films from the ’60s and ’70s featuring poignant social commentary or anti-war sentiments aren’t available on DVD so in my response to Dennis I mentioned that I’d love to see splashy collector editions of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966) among other films. At the time that I mentioned The Naked Prey I had no idea that Criterion was planning on releasing the film on DVD so you can imagine how surprised and happy I was when I discovered that Criterion would be releasing it many months later. The Naked Prey wasn’t exactly given a “splashy collector’s treatment” by Criterion, but considering that this is the first time this magnificent movie has been made available on DVD, I couldn’t be much happier with the results.

The Criterion disc includes a beautifully restored digital widescreen transfer of the film, audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, the original soundtrack cues created by director Cornel Wilde and ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey, along with a written statement about the score by Tracey, the original theatrical trailer for the film and a written record of the events of 1913 involving a trapper’s flight from Blackfoot Indians—which was the inspiration for The Naked Prey—read by actor Paul Giamatti, plus a booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Wilde that I wish had been captured on film.

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While watching The Naked Prey again I was truly stunned by the incredible look of this classic film, which is made all the more evident thanks to the fine restoration work done by Criterion. Cornel Wilde was a popular and handsome Hollywood star who appeared in some great historical dramas, crime pictures and adventure films during the ’40s and ’50s, but he only started directing his own movies later in life. It’s a shame that he didn’t spend more time behind the camera because Wilde clearly shows he’s got some impressive directing abilities in The Naked Prey.

The film tells the rather simplistic tale of a group of white hunters in colonial Africa led by Cornel Wilde. When one of the men offends a tribesman they encounter, the hunters are all attacked, captured and killed, except for Wilde. Since Wilde is the only man in his hunting group who showed the natives any respect, they offer him a running start before they begin to hunt him like an animal. Thankfully luck is on his side and he manages to survive much longer than anyone expects. The Naked Prey features very little dialogue and no subtitles, even though various native dialects are heard throughout the film. Instead, Wilde uses the natural jungle sounds and the film’s effective score to tell his memorable tale.

Some potential viewers will probably assume that The Naked Prey is a typical adventure film set in Africa where the good and wise white hunters must fight off the primitive jungle savages, but frankly nothing could be further from the truth. The film does use typical conventions found in countless adventure films made before the sixties, but Wilde injects his movie with insightful social commentary about racism and oppression in South Africa, where the film takes place. Using fantastic footage he shot of the natural wildlife, Wilde was also able to smartly examine complex ideas about man’s primitive animal instincts and basic survival urges that could all be considered rather timely topics in 1966 as well as today.

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The film is also just plain entertaining and stunning to look at. The African countryside and its people had rarely appeared more beautiful in a Hollywood film before. Wilde shoots their actions and rituals with an artists’ eye and the audience is asked to sympathize with the land and the human beings that populate it instead of merely fearing them. The film might appear slightly outdated now, but its final humanist message of understanding and unity is as pertinent as ever and when viewed in context of the time that it was made, The Naked Prey is truly a remarkable achievement.

Cornel Wilde was 54 years old when he directed and starred in The Naked Prey, but the actor has rarely looked better. He performs all his own stunts in the film and it’s obvious that he took good care of himself. His performance in the movie is very understated and purely physical, but that’s what makes it so impressive. With very little dialogue and character background, Wilde was able to infuse his role with a lot of life.

The Naked Prey is Cornel Wilde’s most well-known directorial effort and it was a worldwide success on its initial release. In recent years the film has often been overlooked or forgotten, but I’m glad that Criterion has finally made the movie available on DVD so more people can discover it. I’ve watched it twice in the last couple of days and I really enjoyed the in-depth audio commentary provided by Stephen Prince. Prince clearly has a lot of love for the film and he offers listeners plenty of information about the production that was new to me. The Naked Prey DVD retails for $39.95 and it’s currently available at Amazon for $29.99. You should also be able to find the film for rent online at Netflix and Greencine.

Ishiro Honda’s Latitude Zero (1969)

What do you get when you mix a plot that seems borrowed from Jules Verne with comic book style heroes and villains that would make Batman envious, costume designs that could be right out of Mario Bava’s Diabolik, combined with a mad dash of James Bond and pulp style adventure? You get the terrifically fun and entertaining Japanese science fiction and fantasy film Latitude Zero (Ido zero daisakusen, 1969) directed by Ishiro Honda!

Honda’s name should be recognizable to most fans of Japanese science fiction films since he’s responsible for the original Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) and many other terrific movies including Rodan (Sora no daikaijû Radon, 1956), The Mysterians (Chikyu Boeigun, 1957), Mothra (Mosura, 1961), Attack of the Mushroom People (Matango, 1963) and Frankenstein Conquers the World (Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon, 1965).

Latitude Zero is an often-overlooked film in Honda’s impressive body of work and considered a lesser science fiction effort from Toho Studios. The movie definitely has its flaws, including some of the most shoddy looking movie monsters you’re likely to ever see. But the entertainment value, great cast and amazing look of the sets more than make up for the film’s flaws. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that they sort of add to the film’s unusual charm. Thankfully a new audience of science fiction fans will be able to discover Latitude Zero and make up their own minds about the movie since Media Blasters has recently released a spectacular two disc DVD presentation of the film with lots of terrific bonus materials including two versions of Latitude Zero (the original Japanese release with English subtitles and the original American release in English), interviews with the Japanese film crew and an image gallery.

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

In 1969 Ishiro Honda made Latitude Zero at Toho Studios with a Japanese crew and American producers and writers. One of these producers was fellow director Don Sharp. Although Sharp is only credited with producing Latitude Zero, the movie often seems more like a collaborative effort between both men since it differs from Honda’s previous films in various ways. Don Sharp made many entertaining genre movies during the sixties such as Curse of the Fly (1965), The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), Rocket to the Moon (1967) and Psychomania (1971). He also made two good films for Hammer Studios (The Kiss of the Vampire, 1963 and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, 1966) and directed episodes of terrific television shows like The Avengers and The Champions. Sharp’s creative influence on Latitude Zero seems rather hard to miss and he may have contributed some of his own ideas to the film.

These are just assumptions on my part and the interviews with the Japanese crew members that appear on the new DVD don’t confirm my suspicions. They do make it clear that the American and Japanese film crews had trouble working together. In the interviews that appear on the DVD the Japanese crew complains a lot about the way Hollywood was making films in the sixties. Compared to Japan where directors were often given full control of the movies they made, American producers were used to having control and making creative decisions. Producers clearly flexed their financial muscles on the set of Latitude Zero and this clash of basic movie-making sensibilities obviously caused a lot of tension between the international cast and crew. I only wish Media Blasters had included some interviews with the American crew on the new DVD so viewers could hear their side of the fascinating behind-the-scene action on the Latitude Zero set.

Latitude Zero begins when a couple of scientists (Akira Takarada and Masumi Okada) and one American reporter (Richard Jaeckel) find themselves lost at sea after an underwater explosion and are rescued by a submarine run by Captain Craig McKenzie (Jospeh Cotten) along with his beautiful assistant Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes) and tough henchman (Susumu Kurobe). Captain McKenzie takes the three men to a mysterious underwater world known as Latitude Zero where scientists and artists have secretly gathered together to create an international utopian society without government interference. Of course, all is not well in Latitude Zero and the men soon find out that the utopian city is under constant attack from an evil genius known as Malic (Cesar Romero) and his two wicked mistresses Lucretia (Patricia Medina) and Kroger (Hikaru Kuroki). After Malic kidnaps another Japanese scientist and his daughter who are making their way to Latitude Zero, Captain McKenzie invites the three men to strap on some jet packs and head out on a mission to save the scientist and his daughter with the hope of putting an end to Malic’s reign of terror. As the adventure unfolds the men are forced to fight off giant bloodthirsty rats, man-like bat creatures and finally a strange giant size beast that is part lion and part vulture.

The film takes a somewhat unusual anti-war stance that is probably due to the times in which it was made. In 1969 the American war in Vietnam was raging and parts of Japan were still under American occupation. Students in both countries were often involved in protests against the war. In the film, the citizens of Latitude Zero don’t use violence against their enemies. Instead of aggressively attacking them, they mostly use protective measures and the idea of a peaceful utopian culture that is home to multiple people from various nations must have seemed extremely appealing at the time.

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

As I mentioned above, the film brings together a wonderful international cast that includes many popular Japanese actors who appeared in countless science fiction and fantasy films, as well as the great American actor Joseph Cotten and his real-life wife, the talented actress Patricia Medina. Cotten is one of my favorite actors and I love watching him in anything, so I really enjoyed him as Captain Craig McKenzie even if he’s obviously a little too old for the role. Patricia Medina manages to steal just about every scene she’s in with Cesar Romero and both actors seem to really be enjoying themselves on the set. Supposedly Cotten and Medina decided to appear in the film so they could work together and spend time in Japan, but unfortunately they only have one scene together in the movie.

The amazing Eiji Tsuburaya was responsible for the special effects in Latitude Zero and he did a great job on many of the miniatures and set designs, but much of the film’s backdrops are made up of impressive matte paintings. The creature designs on the other hand leave a lot to be desired. Most of the monsters featured in the movie are obviously men wearing rather shabby costumes or poorly constructed puppets. The climactic battle at the end of the film is somewhat marred by a lion with vulture wings that looks like it belongs on the Island of Misfit Toys created by Rankin/Bass for their Christmas special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).

Even with its obvious flaws, muddled script and ridiculous plot-twists, Latitude Zero has a lot to offer adventurous viewers and I’m really glad that Media Blasters has made the effort to release the film in a lavish two disc collection DVD package. The new Media Blasters DVD marks the first time that this film has been made available to American audiences in any format and it’s easily one of my favorite DVD releases of the year. The restored widescreen print of the film looks fantastic and I was also impressed with their choice to use the original Japanese poster art for the DVD case. If you’re a fan of Japanese Tokusatsu films or just want to see an entertaining science fiction and fantasy movie with a good cast, then I highly recommend giving the movie a look. Latitude Zero is currently available from Amazon for only $14.99 (it normally retails for $19.95).

If you’d like to see more screen shots from the film please visit my Latitude Zero Flickr Gallery. The movie contains so much fabulous eye-candy that I hard time selecting which images to share.

DVD of the Week: The Killing Kind

I’m on vacation at the moment and enjoying the holiday, but I wanted to briefly mention that Curtis Harrington’s terrific 1973 thriller The Killing Kind was released this week on DVD for the first time and it’s my DVD pick of the week. Harrington is responsible for some of the most interesting and entertaining American horror movies and television productions of the sixties and seventies including Night Tide (which recently made my list of 31 films that give me the willies) as well as Games, How Awful About Allan, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, What’s the Matter with Helen? and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell. The Killing Kind is one of the director’s best films and I’m really happy that it has finally found its way on to DVD thanks to Dark Sky Films, which has been releasing some great movies this year.

The Killing Kind stars John Savage (The Deer Hunter, Hair, The Onion Field, Do the Right Thing, etc.) in one of his earliest roles as a young man named Terry Lambert. Terry is an accused rapist who has recently been released from jail and is out for revenge. Savage is perfectly cast here as a sympathetic loner that you somehow sympathize with, but his innocent demeanor hides a dark and disturbed personality. Other stand out performances in The Killing Kind include Ann Sothern (Maisie, A Letter to Three Wives, The Blue Gardenia, Crazy Mama, etc.) as Terry Lambert’s overbearing mother Thelma. She carries on a strange and unhealthy relationship with her son that hints at sexual abuse. Their unusual family dynamic leads to Terry’s mental disintegration and finally has dire consequences for everyone. Luana Anders, Cindy Williams, Ruth Roman and Sue Bernard also have memorable roles here.

This extremely effective and creepy thriller might seem a little campy to some thanks to Ann Southern’s odd turn as Thelma Lambert, but I think it’s one of the smarter and more interesting movies made in the early seventies that attempted to explore the deranged mind of a sexual predator and killer. The film will remind some viewers of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but Harrington brings his own insights and individual style to The Killing Kind.

Dark Sky’s widescreen DVD presentation of The Killing Kind runs 95 minutes long and contains optional English subtitles. It also features an interview with director Curtis Harrington, which unfortunately was his last since Harrington passed away earlier this year due to complications following a stroke. You can currently purchase The Killing Kind from Amazon for $17.99 (it retails for ($19.99) and it should be available for rent at online sources such as Netflix and Greencine.

Below is a clip from the interview with Curtis Harrington featured on the DVD, which also contains some scenes from the film:

DVD of the Week: Tattooed Flower Vase

Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo (1976)

Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo (1976)

There were some good DVD re-releases this week such as the Special Collector’s Edition of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and a Deluxe Edition of Richard Lester’s Help! (1965). But my DVD pick of the week is the Kino/KimStim release of the Japanese Roman Porno film Tattooed Flower Vase (aka Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo; 1976) directed by Masaru Konuma. Kino released four of Konuma’s Pink films in association with KimStim on Region-1 NTSC DVD this week. The other three Konuma films now available are Cloistered Nun: Runa’s Confession (aka Shudojo Runa no Kokuhaku, 1976), Wife to be Sacrificed (aka Ikenie Fujin; 1974) and Erotic Diary of an Office Lady (aka OL Kanno Nikki: Ah! Watashi no Naka de; 1977). Only Wife to be Sacrificed has been available in the U.S. on DVD before now.

I’ve only had the opportunity to see Tattooed Flower Vase, but it’s a beautiful piece of erotica with a dark sadistic edge. My experience with Konuma’s work is minimal at best, but I’ve found his early films to be visually impressive and smartly done even if they often lack the interesting social and political themes that can be found in more experimental pink films made by independent directors such as Koji Wakamatsu.

Masaru Konuma worked for the Nikkatsu studio system during the seventies and early eighties making Roman Porno films, which are a type of Pink film mainly concerned with eroticism and aesthetics. In particular Japanese eroticism and aesthetics that often confuse and confound western audiences and critics. Konuma still works for Nikkatsu making adult films but the “golden age” of Roman Porno has come and gone.

The director’s 1976 film Tattooed Flower Vase stars the lovely Naomi Tani (often referred to as one of the “queens” of Japanese erotica) as a widowed doll maker named Michiyo with a beautiful daughter Takako (Takako Kitagawa). The two women live together in a sort of quiet solitude and appear to have an unusual bond with sexual undertones. When Michiyo is drugged and taken advantage of by a doll shop owner, her erotic passions are aroused and she begins to obsess over her past sexual experiences with a deceased Kabuki actor. Things get more complicated after Michiyo’s daughter is involved in a car accident with a handsome young man named Hideo, who ends up being the son of her dead lover. Both mother and daughter begin to vie for Hideo’s attention and as the story unfolds Michiyo becomes more and more aroused by her memories. Michiyo’s erotic adventures include a passionate fling with a tattoo artist who covers her body in a beautiful traditional Japanese tattoo. Her elaborate tattoo design represents a classic Kabuki play about a woman who transforms into a snake so she can pursue her lover. In some ways Michiyo undergoes a similar transformation after she gets tattooed.

Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo (1976)

Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo (1976)

Masaru Konuma began working as an assistant director at Nikkatsu studios in the sixties and he has praised the work of the brilliant Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, who also worked at Nikkatsu. I don’t know if the two men ever worked together during the ’60s, but Konuma’s creative use of light, space and framing seems to echo Suzuki’s work at times. Tattooed Flower Vase is a lovely looking film that makes impressive use of its Kabuki themes and traditional music. I also enjoyed the way the director used traditional Japanese Washi paper dolls in Tattooed Flower Vase to reinforce particular themes.

As I mentioned above, Naomi Tani plays a doll maker in Tattooed Flower Vase and she is often photographed within the film making dolls or caressing them. She has a special talent for making Kabuki style Washi paper dolls, which obviously reference her passionate relationship with a dead Kabuki actor. The dolls also seem to symbolize the way that the women sometimes play and toy with the male characters in the movie

Masaru Konuma’s Roman Porno films are clearly designed to arouse a viewers mind and body, and if you’re bothered by explicit sexuality in films then you should probably avoid them. On the other hand, early Roman Porno films such as Tattooed Flower Vase are more erotic than pornographic, and they contain subtle nudity and censored genitalia. Having some understanding of Japanese erotica will help western viewers better appreciate the films erotic themes and the way Konuma presents various sexual acts, which could probably be seen as misogynistic or even bizarre to some shortsighted viewers.

The Tattooed Flower Vase is currently available at Amazon and it features a beautiful anamorphic (16:9) widescreen print of the film with optional English subtitles. Extras include a theaterical trailer and a brief text biography on director Masaru Konuma, which unfortunately is rather dull and uninformative. It only seems to echo the limited information about Konuma that can already be found at Wikipedia. This is a minor complaint though, and I’m grateful that Kino/KimStim are making these rare early Konuma films available on DVD.

Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo (1976)

Kashin no Irezumi: Ureta Tsubo (1976)

You can find more images from the film in my Tattooed Flower Vase Flickr Gallery.

DVD of the Week: O Lucky Man!

Last week I neglected to post my DVD pick of the week, but the pickings were slim and I couldn’t recommend anything. This week there are plenty of great new DVD releases to get excited about such as Polart’s release of Andrzej Zulawski’s The Devil (Diabel, 1972), The second Mario Bava DVD Box Set and Warner’s new Stanley Kubrick DVD Box Set, but my DVD pick of the week is Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973), which was released by Warner as an impressive Two-Disc Special Edition on Tuesday.

I’ve been really happy to see Lindsay Anderson’s films finding there way onto on DVD this year. Anderson is one of my favorite British directors and one of the most important figures of the British New Wave, but his early films have often been hard to see in the U.S. and they were never made available on DVD until recently. Thankfully that’s finally changing. Criterion released Anderson’s brilliant If…. (1968) on DVD earlier this year and they recently announced their plans to release This Sporting Life (1963) in early 2008. Now Warner has entered into the Anderson DVD arena with their impressive Deluxe 2 Disc release of O Lucky Man! which as I mentioned over at Cinedelica earlier this week, promises to be one of the best DVD releases of the year.

O Lucky Man! is the second film in Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy focused around the character of Michael Arnold Travis aka Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) who first appeared in If…. and made his last appearance in Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982). All three films offer a critical and humorous look at social and political concerns in Britain, which I personally find just as relevant today as they were some 40 years ago. O Lucky Man! is a sort of surreal musical satire that often veers off in the most unexpected directions, but I’ve always found it really engaging and that has a lot to do with Malcolm McDowell’s terrific performance as Mick Travis. Some of the musical numbers in the film don’t always work for me, but Anderson’s ability to mix brilliant eye-catching imagery with smart dialogue is hard to top. O Lucky Man! contains some of the director’s most impressive scenes, but this middle film in Anderson’s terrific trilogy seems to often be overlooked. Thankfully the new Warner DVD will give more people a chance to see the director’s follow-up to If…. and hopefully a new DVD release of Anderson’s Britannia Hospital is in the works since the Anchor Bay release is now out-of-print.

Recommended Links:
My write-up on Warner’s new O Lucky Man! Two-Disc Special Edition DVD at Cinedelica
Tim Lucas talks about Malcolm McDowell
The Lindsay Anderson Memorial Foundation