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April 19, 2014
David Kalat
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Occupy Fritz Lang

There is a secret conspiracy that rules the world.

This hidden power can make or break a fortune at a moment’s whim.  It decrees the rise and fall of nations.  It chooses who lives, and who dies.

There are some—like the heroic British spy with a number for a name, or the alluring Mata Hari-like international woman of mystery he keeps running into—who think they can use the tools of surveillance, cryptography, and overall spookcraft to expose this obscure force and save the world.

Wanna know a secret?  This secret power—he’s a banker.  You can Occupy Wall Street all you want: the Great Banker is the spider at the heart of this massive web, and he will outlast you all.

So, yeah, for a silent movie made in Germany in 1928, there’s a lot going on here.  You can play along at home if you want when TCM runs this later tonight.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, spies
COMMENTS: 1
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WHEELS IN THE SKY KEEP ON TURNING

Le Mans

This Thursday TCM is featuring four films that fall under the theme of European Auto Racing: Le Mans (Lee H. Katzin, 1971), Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966), The Racers (Henry Hathaway, 1955), The Young Racers (Roger Corman, 1963), and Speed (Edwin, L, Martin, 1936). Last month I sold the Subaru that I’d owned since 1996. The odometer had 102,000 miles on it, and probably only had that many due to the two or three road-trips I’ve taken to visit various film festivals every year over its almost two-decades of service. That’s my way of saying I’m not much of a car guy, so it’s probably not a surprise I’ve missed out on all the aforementioned films except for Le Mans, which I saw for the first time at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. Special guests Chad McQueen and race-drivers Derek Bell and Vic Elford were in attendance, and the experience was truly riveting. For the film, Steve McQueen famously tossed out most of the dialogue and it seemed like a half hour went by before anyone said anything at all – leaving viewers instead to marinate in the sound of motors…. motors going dangerously fast and rubbing shoulders with death, both on and off-screen. [...MORE]

Battle Lines: Zulu (1964)

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In the closely watched race of American directors most misidentified as European, Cyril (Cy) Endfield finishes close behind Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Dassin is well-known for his French heist film Rififi, Losey for his Pinter adaptations,  and Endfield for his English colonial war picture Zulu (1964). All had their Hollywood careers annihilated by the blacklist, and their national identity with it, having to flee overseas to continue working. In Endfield’s necessarily vagabond career, his most lasting working relationship was with Welsh tough guy actor Stanley Baker, with whom he made six features, including the cynical two-fisted action films Hell Drivers and Sands of the Kalahari (I wrote about the latter here). Zulu was the one Endfield looked back on most fondly, though, with a script he carried around for four years before he could get it made in the manner he wanted – on 70mm VistaVision. It is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time through Screen Archives Entertainment, in somethings approximating its original glory. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, when 150 British colonial troops defended a garrison against thousands of Zulu warriors, as a grim procedural – heroism rendered nauseous and ashamed.

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Caged: A Nicolas Cage Marathon

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In 1999 Sean Penn said Nicolas Cage was “no longer an actor. He could be again, but now he’s more like a…performer.” Penn intended this as a criticism, framing a narrative of Cage abandoning art (Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas) for commerce (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off). That has been the accepted story of his career ever since: that of an eccentric, gifted actor who wasted a promising career cashing facile blockbuster paychecks because of bad real estate investments. The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY hosted a four-film Nicolas Cage marathon last weekend (Con Air, Red Rock West, Vampire’s Kiss and Face/Off - all on 35mm!) that shifted my perception of his career. From the start Cage was a “performer”, a destabilizing physical presence rather than the reflective “method” artist which Penn desires from his actors. In The Guardian, Cage told Emma Brockes that, “if you look at Vampire’s Kiss, it’s all about that memory of Nosferatu; that Germanic, expressionistic acting style.” He has the angular, haunted face of Conrad Veidt attached the quick-twitch tendons of Jim Carrey, blaring his silent film pantomimes out to the back row. You can trace these moves throughout his career, his goggle eyed stare and hunched shoulder lope a fixture of the 90s blockbuster through to his Aughts VOD quickies. Even before his financial difficulties he was a prolific performer – he would have savored the 5-movie-a-year pace of old studio hands.  To follow his breakout year of 1987 (Moonstruck and Raising Arizona), he accepted a part in the deliriously strange black comedy Vampire’s Kiss, while he countered David Lynch’s Wild at Heart with the immortal Sam Pillsbury’s Zandalee.  His relentless work ethic has landed him in more dross than gold, but even in the dregs he’s capable of inspired, movie-imploding madness.

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Martial Fine Artists: Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-Ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

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Siege Mentality: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.

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Off the Beaten Track: Shack Out on 101 and Plunder Road

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We associate film noir with cramped urban spaces, labyrinthine warrens of crime and vice. This slipperiest of genres, identified by French film critics years after its demise, also gained resonance by departing from the city and hitting the road. Often this takes the form of a last ditch attempt at salvation, as in the transition from city to country in On Dangerous Ground, when Robert Ryan’s cop finds humanity in the dead eyes of Ida Lupino. Olive Films recently released two curiously located 1950s noirs, the beachside diner of Shack Out on 101 (1955) and the highway heist film Plunder Road (1957). Both dispense their pleasures through their constrained locales, the first taken place almost entirely in a shabby eatery, the second inside a getaway truck. The first veers towards absurdist humor while the second is a straight-faced procedural, but both display how the noir ingredients could be combined in an endless variety of ways, and that there are always discoveries to be made in even this most picked over of genres.

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Lions in My Lap

bwanalionsWhile living in Chicago during the 1990s, I suddenly found myself unemployed. To keep active while searching for another job, I became a volunteer at the Field Museum, the city’s world renowned natural history museum. My duties involved either manning the owl station or the teeth cart, though I longed to work as a docent in the mammal galleries where animals from all over the world were stuffed and mounted for display. Instead of explaining the stealth capabilities of owls or the difference between alligator and crocodile teeth, I really wanted to tell folks about the Field’s most notorious residents, the man-eating Lions of Tsavo.

In 1898, these two lions stalked and preyed on the Hindu immigrants working in Africa for the colonial British, who insisted they had a right to build the Kenya-Uganda Railroad across the continent. When the company began to construct a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya, the lions terrorized the crew by attacking and devouring several workers. Fearful of being eaten alive, the crew halted work, and many fled. The British sent Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson to calm the crew and ensure their safety. At first, Patterson assumed the stories about man-eaters were exaggerations, but he soon discovered the two beasts exhibited behavior uncommon for lions. They hunted together as a pair; they made their den in a cave, where they dragged their prey; they were unafraid to get close to humans, even in daylight. Apparently the cats eluded several traps, crawled under thorn fences, and figured out how to get around the raging fires intended to keep them at bay. It took Colonel Patterson about nine months to kill the lions, though not before they consumed about three dozen employees. On December 9, he wounded one of the lions in the leg. According to the Colonel’s published account, the big cat returned to camp that night to seek revenge, but he shot it dead. About 20 days later, he killed the second lion. The Colonel’s self-promotional account is not entirely accurate: He claimed that the Lions of Tsavo had killed and eaten about 135 people. After Field Museum scientists discovered and studied the lions’ original den and ran tests on their fur and skin, they estimated one of the man-eaters had consumed about ten victims, while the other had digested about 24.

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The Entertainer: Allan Dwan (Part 2)

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This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.

Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.

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Non-Lethal Weapon: Jackie Chan’s Police Story (1985)

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“Nobody can beat Bruce Lee, everybody can beat me” -Jackie Chan

Failing as a stoic Bruce Lee clone early in his career, Jackie Chan discovered that audiences preferred him as a cheery masochist, enduring abuse for fun and profit. His kung-fu clowning in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978) established a persona he would tinker with the rest of his career. When he shifted from martial arts period pieces to modern day action thrillers in the 1980s, his drifting fool becomes professionalized, an innocent goofball in uniform. His masterpiece of this period is Police Story (1985), which was recently issued on Blu-Ray by Shout! Factory, along with its initial 1988 sequel, Police Story 2 (1988). Chan has made five Police Storys to date, with a sixth in production set for release later this year, but the original remains his (and my) favorite.

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