Adventure in Istanbul: Topkapi (1964)

TOPKAPI (1964)

Today (Dec. 8) is Maximilian Schell’s birthday. The handsome Swiss actor is one of my favorite screen performers and he would have been 85 today if he hadn’t passed away in 2014 after abruptly contracting pneumonia. To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d take a look at one of my favorite Maximilian Schell films; the stylish and highly entertaining caper, Topkapi (1964) directed by Jules Dassin (Brute Force [1947], The Naked City [1948]). If you’re searching for an enjoyable way to pass a few hours, this playful, frothy cocktail of a film is sure to warm your spirits. Topkapi is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. You can also occasionally catch it playing on TCM.

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Truffaut’s Waltz into Darkness

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Though he still doesn’t quite enjoy household name status, Cornell Woolrich might be the most influential American mystery writer of the past century. The adaptations are an obvious place to start with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) leading the pack, but his real legacy is the way he permanently embedded modern thrillers with recurring themes of the unreliability of memory, the pitfalls of falling in love with someone you think you know and the inescapable darkness that can claim even the most virtuous of souls. If you want to find out where films like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) came from, look no further than this master storyteller.

Hollywood really jumped on the Woolrich bandwagon in the ‘40s with a slew of radio adaptations as well as fascinating films like The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), The Chase (1946), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). The big screen took less of an interest in him the following decades as television honed in on him instead, churning out numerous versions of his novels and short stories for home viewers on such programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. The 1960s would prove to be Woolrich’s last decade on earth with his passing in 1968, but he had another resurgence from a most unlikely source: acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut.

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Panning for Gold with Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka

Eureka 1 I have a real soft spot for that strange period after the ‘70s when all the British filmmaking enfants terribles tried to wedge their styles into a movie landscape that had radically changed in front of them. Ken Russell tore into the American cinematic arena with Altered States (1980) and Crimes of Passion (1984); Lindsay Anderson veered from satirical outrage with Britannia Hospital (1982) to genteel drama with The Whales of August (1987); John Boorman went phantasmagorical with Excalibur (1981) and primitive with The Emerald Forest (1985); Derek Jarman dispensed with narrative entirely for The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last of England (1988). Then there’s the strange case of Nicolas Roeg, who was riding high after the triple punch of Walkabout (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Needless to say, the early ‘80s took him in some very surprising directions, first with the very ill-received Bad Timing (1980), which is now regarded as a transgressive classic, and what remains one of his most neglected and misunderstood films, Eureka (1983), airing on TCM in the appropriately wee hours of Friday. [...MORE]

Day of the Doberman

dobermangang_1 Do you love dogs? Of course you do, and so do most moviegoers if Hollywood history is any indication. However, if you had to name the biggest decade for man’s best friend, which one would it be? The heyday of Rin-Tin-Tin in the ‘20s? The arrival of Lassie in 1943 or her TV reign in the ‘50s? Maybe, but for my money the winner hands down has to be the 1970s – and there’s one breed that personified the Me Decade more than any other. Just as the United States was plunging into the chaos of Watergate, the whole country seemed to go canine crazy in 1972 when the most famous comic strip pooch got a theatrical vehicle with Snoopy Come Home and the Newberry-winning novel Sounder became a multiple Oscar-nominated prestige release. [...MORE]

Nippon Noir: Snow Trail (1947)

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Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail aka Ginrei no hate (1947) begins with a bang. A montage of shadowy figures and fragmented images bombards viewers during the film’s opening credits while guns fire, alarms ring, windows break, trains whistle and sirens scream. We soon discover that three desperate men (Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Yoshio Kosugi) have just robbed a bank and in a bold attempt to dodge authorities, they make a dangerous trip to Northern Japan where they hope to lose their pursuers in the snow-covered Alps. None of the men are prepared for the hard climb ahead of them and they sorely lack the survival skills needed to endure a harsh winter outdoors. When they’re forced to seek shelter at isolated ski lodges and in abandoned ranger stations, it only complicates their dire situation. As the stress of their predicament begins to overwhelm them, tensions grow and soon the three outlaws are bickering among themselves. Their shaky solidarity gives way to fear, distrust and unrepentant greed but one man will eventually find bitter redemption amidst the demanding mountains.

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PICKPOCKET

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(Editor’s Note: Pablo Kjolseth unexpectedly found himself on the road assisting with Cory McAbee’s latest film project, so he handed over the reigns for today’s post to Michael J. Casey, film critic and reporter for The Boulder Weekly.)

Above all things, cinema is a style. Movies are a glorious and exciting exploration of the human condition, but without style, the images simply hang to the screen, failing to be anything more than a light flickering on a blank canvas.

That’s why those who crack the code are so lauded, and few have been as voraciously lauded as the French director, Robert Bresson (1901-1999). Though he only made 13 features over the course of four decades, every one of his films bear a signature style, the mark of a master. Of these 13, TCM is showing five of his most acclaimed works on Sept. 25, and though all of them explore Bresson’s thoughts on style, cinematography and spirituality, none convey his ideas quite like his 1959 masterpiece, Pickpocket. [...MORE]

Postwar Amnesiac Blues: The Clay Pigeon (1949)

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After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the NightThe Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.

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Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

A Forgotten Film to Remember: Eyes in the Night

eyesopenerTomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.

MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)

In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.

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Brainquake: The Lost Novel by Samuel Fuller

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“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” -the first line of Sam Fuller’s Brainquake

Sam Fuller was not one for the slow burn. He preferred instant incineration. He learned his potent pulp technique in the NYC tabloids as a crime reporter, where an attention grabbing lede was all that mattered. The same skill is applied to his movie potboilers, as in The Naked Kiss‘ gonzo opener, where a bald prostitute assaults a john with her purse. His penchant for arresting opening scenes also appears in his novels – one of which is appearing in English for the first time this year. Fuller wrote Brainquake in the early 1990s, but it was only published in French and Japanese, rejected by U.S. editors for being too “European”. Intrepid pulp purveyors Hard Case Crime have corrected this injustice by releasing Brainquake last week in its English debut, complete with a gloriously seamy cover painting by Glen Orbik. The book is a densely plotted crime fiction farrago, deeply informed by Fuller’s experience as an exile. Ever since his inflammatory anti-racist White Dog was banned from U.S. cinemas, Fuller could only find work in Europe, and so he moved there with his wife Christa. The center of Brainquake is a monosyllabic bagman for the NYC mob who ends up on the lam in Paris. The bagman also happens to suffer from hallucination-inducing migraines that lend the book its title. Stacked with memorable characters, from a serial killer in priest’s garb to a melancholy French resistance fighter, the book is an overheated, overstuffed and never less than entertaining slab of Fuller’s expansive pulp imagination.

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