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Friday, August 22, 2014

The Bounty Killer

Next in my Spaghetti Western festival is The Bounty Killer, also known as The Ugly Ones, from 1966. It was directed by Eugenio Martin, and it's pretty good, with surprising depth.

The film stars Richard Wyler as Luke Chilson, the bounty killer of the title. He always gets his man, as seen in the opening credits, as he tracks two men across the Arizona desert. One of them gets away long enough to tell a beautiful young woman (Halina Zalewska), that her childhood boyfriend has escaped from jail, but was recaptured and being sent to a maximum-security prison in Yuma, where no one ever returns from.

She helps her boyfriend (Tomas Milian) escape, and he holes up with his gang in her hotel in a dusty little town. The people of the town love Milian, and will do anything to keep Wyler from capturing him. This, even though Milian has now become a hardened thief and killer. Wyler compares him to Jesse James, and the townspeople remind Wyler that James was protected by his people, who were good and decent people.

But the townspeople, particularly Zalewska, see that Milian has indeed changed, and his gang are a bunch of rowdies. Milian plays the outlaw like a rock star, and give the year of release, it could be seen as a parallel to the establishment/counter-culture clashes of the '60s. In this instance, we are led to finally agree with the side of law and order, as the townspeople eventually help Wyler bring in his man.

I found the dynamic between the two men, Wyler and Milian, interesting, as neither are heroic. Wyler is only interested in money--unlike other films of the period, he never has a moment where he is doing what he is doing to help people. The film portrays Milian as charismatic, until we finally see he's a lazy good for nothing, lying in bed and drinking.

Martin has some interesting touches that resonated. In the final shootout, Wyler shoots Milian in both wrists so he can't shoot, but Milian, rather than giving up and lying in the dust, tries to work the gun with his mouth, a fitting comment on the culture of the gun.

The Bounty Killer is worth a look.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

To Have and Have Not

Following the death of Lauren Bacall last week, I thought I'd take a look at the films she made with Humphrey Bogart. They were one of the great couples in all of Hollywood history, but only made four pictures together. But what four pictures they were. I've seen three of them previously, many times.

She made her film debut in To Have and Have Not in 1944. The story is famous. She was a model, and the wife of Howard Hawks, the great director, saw her on the cover of a magazine. Hawks was equally taken, and cast her in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel. Hawks had bet Hemingway that he could make a movie of his worst novel. Hemingway, perhaps aghast and amused, and asked just which one that was. "To Have and Have Not," Hawks replied.

Bogart, after years of playing heavies, had finally broken into stardom as good guys after The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He was married at the time, to a very difficult woman. But after filming started, he impulsively gave Bacall a kiss and it was off to the races.

Bacall was only 19. She had no film experience, and visibly shook during filming. To offset this, she lowered her chin and looked upward, which gave her "the look." Hawks advised her to lower her voice, so she drove out to Mulholland Drive and read a book aloud to the canyon.

As it became apparent that Bogart and Bacall were having an affair, Hawks was angered, as he wanted Bacall. In spite, he had an affair with the second female lead, Dolores Moran.

No one who has read Hemingway's book would recognize it. The script was heavily doctored by William Faulkner, who at that time was a drunk humbly reduced to working in Hollywood. The location was changed from Cuba to Martinique, as the U.S. government did not want films showing Cuba in a bad light. The plot was changed heavily, from bank robbers to freedom fighters. In essence, this is Casablanca in the Caribbean, as Bogart plays Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain who tries to mind his own business, but is drawn into the fight, helping the resistance. There's even a piano player (Hoagy Carmichael).

Bacall plays Marie Browning, whom Bogart calls Slim (she calls him Steve, and it turns out these were the pet names that Hawks and his wife had for each other--Bogart would forever call Bacall "Baby"). She is a pickpocket and quite possibly a prostitute, who has made her way from Brazil to Martinique. She has eyes for Bogart, and in one of the most memorable seduction scenes in all film history she lays it out pretty plain for him. "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."

The chemistry between the two is electric. She has a lot of great lines. In one scene Bogart is holding Moran, who has fainted. "What are you trying to do, guess her weight?" she chides him. He says "She's heftier than you think. Better loosen her clothes." Bacall replies, "You've been doing all right."

Another wonderful aspect of the film is Walter Brennan, as Bogart's drunk friend Eddie. He's a rummy, who Bogart feels great affection for, and also has the price of a drink for him. Brennan has a hitch in his walk and is fond of asking people, "Was you ever bit by a dead bee?"

The film pales in comparison to Casablanca, but will always be important in Hollywood history for the teaming of Bogie and Bacall. The "whistle" scene is known by almost everyone, even if they haven't seen the movie. It was even satirized in a Warner Brothers cartoon. That's the mark of importance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Minnesota Clay

I was wrong--I'm not done with Sergio Corbucci. I got my hands on a copy of his very first Spaghetti Western--Minnesota Clay--from 1964, starring American actor Cameron Mitchell.

Mitchell plays the title character, who at the start of the film is in a prison labor camp. He was the fastest gun in the West, but has been imprisoned for a killing he did in self-defense. The man who could clear him is now ruling a small town as a very corrupt sheriff.

Mitchell escapes, and heads back to his home town in New Mexico. The Italians seem to have a tough time with American geography--Mitchell says the federal soldiers won't follow into New Mexico, but of course they could. I also wonder why a man born and bred in New Mexico would be called Minnesota Clay.

Anyway, Mitchell finds that he has a daughter, young and beautiful and a spitting image of her dead mother. The town is caught between a war between the sheriff and Mexican bandits. Mitchell contrives a plan to bring the soldiers to town to arrest the sheriff, who will clear his name. Meanwhile, the head bandit's woman (the marvelously named Ethel Rojo) plays both sides against the other.

The film has all the earmarks of the Spaghetti Western--the lurid reds, the abrupt editing, the cruel villainy. Mitchell huffs and puffs a bit, but has some great stoic lines, like "The cemetery is full of men who have been taught to shoot." Oh, and I forgot to mention that Mitchell's character is going blind, and the final shootout with the sheriff and his men takes place with Mitchell hardly able to see a thing, and relying on sound. Pretty good stuff.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Five

Horror, I think, is my favorite genre, but it's not often done right. I have started many horror novels only to be disappointed quickly. In this collection, edited by Ellen Datlow, there are some of those stories that are just so overloaded with literary aspiration that they don't generate any chills, but overall I found most of the work very worthwhile.

Datlow has been the pre-eminent editor of horror and fantasy fiction for decades now (and, full disclosure, a former colleague of mine). She notes in her introduction that she has included three zombie stories, almost apologetically, but that they are told in unique ways. I agree. Two of them are about zombies who have been cured (somewhat) and are back in society. The better of these is "Magdala Amygdala," by Lucy A. Snyder, which is also the most gruesome of the stories, and provides a detailed description of a zombie slurping up someone's brain--while they are still alive (and a willing donor).

Other standard categories of horror are included. We get a first-rate ghost story in "The House on Ashley Avenue," which seems rushed at the end, as if it were a sketch for a longer novel. "The Crying Child," by Bruce McAllister, gives the weird Satanic rite in a village story, this time set in Italy. For werewolf fanciers, there's "Wild Acre," which instead of focusing on the werewolf focuses on the guilt of the man who survived an attack that killed his friends. The ingenious "Final Exam," by Megan Armstrong, tells a story of Lovecraftian monsters, but as the title suggests, in a multiple choice quiz.

Some of the stories I found fairly incomprehensible, such as "Pig Thing," by Adam L.G. Nevill, "Bajazzle," by Margo Lanegan, and "The Pike," by Conrad Williams. But these are more than made up for by the excellent "Mariners' Round," by Terry Dowling (which is more fantasy than horror) and "Frontier Death Song," by Laird Barron, which uncovers a legend I hadn't heard of, the Wild Hunt.

But the story I liked the most, and I found the most chilling, was "Some Pictures in an Album," by Gary McMahon, in which a man describes seventeen photos he finds in a box after his father's death. The photos depict some sort of inhuman demon, and foretell the man's horrible fate. I still get a little goose-pimply thinking about it: "Again, we have the black door. It's half open, and this time a thin, pale hand can be seen gripping its edge. The fingers are too long, and there are only three of them but with too many joints. The knuckle bones jut out unnaturally. The skin is a sickly yellowy shade of cream." I'm leaving the lights on tonight.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Wizard of Oz

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the most beloved movies in film history, The Wizard of Oz. There is little left to say about it, critically or historically, but that's not going to stop me.

The film was not a box office success when it was released in 1939, though it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won two (both for music). It had a couple of re-releases, but it wasn't until it started to be shown on television that it became the most viewed film in the history of eyeballs (I have only come across two people who have never seen it, and one of them was recently arrived from Turkey). It's first airing was in 1956, and was the first film to be aired uncut on a network (prior to that, movies were only shown on local affiliates). It started airing annually in 1959 until the 1990s, and now that it is owned by Turner it pops up every so often.

For old fogies like me, the telecast of The Wizard of Oz was a major event, as it was the only way to see it. Every year it drew huge ratings, and I remember anticipating it keenly. I distinctly remember watching while sitting cross-legged right in front of the tube, and when the credits came on feeling a rush of exhilaration.

The film is now a cultural touchstone of great immensity. So many of its lines and situations have been firmly embedded in our cultural ethos that it's as if they have always existed:

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
"Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
"I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too."
"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"
"Who rang that bell?"
"Surrender Dorothy"
"I do believe in spooks."
"I'm melting!"
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"

And many, many others.

Historically, the film is a treasure trove of lore that has filled several volumes. Based on the turn of the century book by L. Frank Baum, it had been made into a film many times before, including a silent version in 1925 with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman. MGM's Sam Goldwyn bought it as a property for Eddie Cantor, who was to play the Scarecrow. Casting tales are legion--producer Mervyn LeRoy was pressured to use Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but Fox wouldn't loan her out. Deanna Durbin was also considered, before Judy Garland was cast. Originally Ray Bolger was to play the Tin Woodsman and Buddy Ebsen the Scarecrow, but Bolger had been inspired to enter show business after seeing the show on stage in 1902, and had always wanted to play the Scarecrow, so they switched. Ebsen turned out to be allergic to the paint used in his makeup, and got so sick he was in an iron lung, and was replaced by Jack Haley. Ed Wynn was offered the part of the Wizard, but turned it down for being too small. W.C. Fields was approached, but contract negotiations dragged on, so Frank Morgan was cast. Gale Sondergaard was cast as the Wicked Witch of the West, but when the film's conception of her was changed from beautiful to an ugly hag, Sondergaard ankled, and contract player Margaret Hamilton was cast.

Some of the lore has varying degrees of truth. Possibly true is that Morgan, looking through old coats for the perfect one to wear, found a tag inside the pocket indicating it belonged to Baum himself at one time. Not true is that you can see a Munchkin who had hung himself in the background of the apple orchard scene. It's actually some sort of crane.

The film went through many different scriptwriters. The book has no Kansas sequence, and actually happened to Dorothy and was not a dream, so the alternate identities--Elmira Gulch and the farmhands--were created for the film. It's hard to know who wrote what, but Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf are the credited screenwriters. The directing credits are also complex. Although Victor Fleming retains the sole directing credit, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, and King Vidor all worked on it. Cukor served as a consultant, and may have been the one who nailed down the concept, but Fleming replaced him. Fleming also replaced Cukor on Gone With the Wind, and also got the sole credit. Vidor finished the picture, directing most of the Kansas sequences.

So what has made the film so enduringly popular/over these 75 years? I think it boils down to a few reasons. One is the fantastic music. I would venture to say that it is the best music ever written strictly for a film, and that "Over the Rainbow" is the best song ever written for a film. The songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, and Harburg, according to some, wrote much of the dialogue to go with the music. Some of the songs, like "It Really Was No Miracle" and the whole Munchkin song medley, take the place of dialogue. There are no bad songs. Even the interstitial music, such as "Optimistic Voices" (the music playing as the friends head up to the Emerald City) and the chant of the Wookies, the Witch's guards, have become instantly recognizable.

Secondly, the theme resonates. There is no place like home, but you can't find that out until you've been someplace else. Dorothy's adventure is thrilling and dangerous, and at the end she could have stayed, but her familial roots pulled her back, even if it was to sepia Kansas (and, by the way, Toto still faces destruction--I doubt Elmira Gulch was willing to let bygones be bygones. Just what happened to Toto?)

Third, the three companions are an example of what came to be known as camp--so ridiculous that they are funny, and, along with Garland, the reason the film is so popular in the LGBTGQ community. I watched with a special eye for that this time, after reading earlier this year that the Cowardly Lion, played by a straight man, Bert Lahr, was actually a well-known stereotype at the time, the "Nance," an effeminate gay man. The Tin Woodsman also seems to be light in his tin loafers, making the Scarecrow the butch one. Note how many crying men are in the film. The Tin Woodsman, the Lion, and the Wizard's gatekeeper weep copiously (again, the Scarecrow is the only one who doesn't). In this day and age, one could see the effeminacy of the characters as making sure the audience doesn't think of any romantic entanglement with Dorothy (something Larry Flynt so vividly did in a x-rated pictorial in Hustler). I found it interesting to read there was an extra scene written, but never filmed, with Hunk (the Scarecrow's alter ego) heading off to agricultural college, Dorothy sending him off, suggesting a future romance. Maybe that's why she tells the Scarecrow "I'm going to miss you most of all."

Part of this camp humor is so much fun, especially the whole scene after the Wizard is unmasked, and he gives the three males what they want, essentially satirizing American mores. "They've got what you haven't got"--whether it be a diploma, medal, or testimonial, which, one realizes, are meaningless, and it's action that matters.

The film does feel dated in some areas, notably the special effects. I still find the twister scene effective, even if that is nothing but a lady's stocking being turned by a fan, but the backdrops are so crudely drawn and the owls and vultures in the haunted forest look like third-rate carnival spook house effects. But the flying monkey scene still works, as does the scene when the Wicked Witch is on her broomstick--it still gives me some chills. Also, the restoration of the picture makes the wires visible, especially in the Lion's tale in the "King of the Forest" number. But so what? I still love Bert Lahr saying, "I'd thrash him from top to bottom-us."


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Navajo Joe

The fourth and last film directed by Sergio Corbucci in my Spaghetti Western festival is Navajo Joe, from 1966. It is my favorite of the films so far, perhaps because it feels more American than any of the others.

To start, it stars American actor Burt Reynolds, before he was a big name. He had played a half-breed Indian on the old TV show Gunsmoke, and his dark good looks made him a natural to play the title character, a solitary Indian bent for vengeance, in an era before actual Indians were used as actors.

The film begins with a band of cutthroats, led by Aldo Sambrell, massacring an Indian village. They are selling scalps, at a dollar a head, but the local sheriff wants none of it anymore since Sambrell is killing women and children. So they turn to robbing a train, making off with half a million in cash that is earmarked by the government for a small town (presumably in the southwest somewhere).

All the while, this gang is stalked by Reynolds, who picks off a few here and there. He agrees to help the townspeople get their money back, but he's more interested in killing Sambrell, who murdered his wife.

Though there are elements that are just plain stupid--why a train loaded with soldiers as escorts doesn't smell a rat when a pile of logs is neatly placed across the tracks I'll never know--Navajo Joe unfolds with expert pacing. Reynolds is a bit of a superman, outdoing the bandits at every turn, but he is capable of being hurt and captured (as seen in the poster, he is hung up by his heels).

Sambrell makes an extraordinarily vicious villain--he kills a minister after the man thanks him--and the final showdown between he and Reynolds is worth the build-up.

The film was scored by Ennio Morricone (some of his soundtrack was used to great comic effect in Alexander Payne's Election), but for some reason he is credited as Leo Nichols.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Perfect Pussy

Here's a tip: don't Google "Perfect Pussy" at work, especially the images. Here's another tip: if you want to clear the room of AARP members, put on Perfect Pussy's album, Say Yes to Love.

Now, I'm an AARP member, and I kind of like the album, but it is a noisy assault on the eardrums. It is, to be sure, punk rock at its rawest, with snarling guitars, vicious drums, and vocals that sound as if the singer is wrapped in burlap. It recalls the days of going to see bands in sweaty, dimly lit clubs.

The title of this album, Say Yes to Love, sounds like it might belong to Celine Dion, but Perfect Pussy is the anti-Celine Dion. None of the songs, save one, could be called melodic. In fact, tracks one and two sound completely alike to me. The lead singer, Meredith Graves, who by appearance is a pixieish young woman, screams into the mic as if she were a she-devil from Hell. The lyrics, which are completely unintelligible, are revealed to be quite poetic when read on the lyric sheet.

From "Driver":

"I know nothing lasts forever
I know that hurt can go and on
Cause I eat stress and I shit blood
and buddy, I'll tell you, it never gets better"

If that's a bit too Bukowski for you, there's this from "Bells":

"We can speak the words of women and angels
But without real love, it's just sad noise
I can open my heart and let everything out
but that won't save me--I'll just be empty"

The only song that slows down enough to have a melody and to be vaguely understood is "Advance Upon the Real":

"I've been god in a rose, I've been woven into quilts
and a hundred bad songs, and I've done so much wrong
and because of me you don't like that one band anymore"

Perfect Pussy is the kind of band you listen to when you've had it with the world and need to be hear loud, brutal punk music. It's kind of a shame that Graves' vocals aren't mixed better so we can actually hear what she's singing.

Now, I'm going to look at the images of perfect pussies.