FANTOMAS
December 5, 2015
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol vs. Fantomas

It was a little over 100 years ago that the writing team of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre first began cranking out Fantômas mystery novels for a voracious European public. To keep apace with the relentless publication schedule, Souvestre and Allain traded writing duties. They would playfully build impossible cliffhangers before handing off to one another, daring the other to concoct a solution. It was perhaps the first commercial application of the Surrealists’ famous “exquisite corpse” game.

Over the years, the Fantômas character has appeared in a frenzied array of movie adaptations of differing degrees of quality. Arguably the most faithful adaptation to date is the 1979 TV miniseries–not necessarily the best, mind you, but the truest to the books. And as it happened, the authenticity extended behind the scenes: the producers decided to hire two visionary filmmakers to direct alternating episodes, in the spirit of Allain and Souvestre’s gonzo writing habits.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Fantomas, Jean-Luis Bunuel
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Movie Book Round-Up: The Holiday Edition

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Since I began writing for the Movie Morlocks five years ago I typically compile a blog post with summer reading suggestions or a list of favorite film related books released at the end of the year. This year I’ve had access to so many great books that I decided to compile two book lists.

My first was “Midsummer Reading Suggestions” where I covered The Lives of Robert Ryan, Sex, Sadism, Spain, and Cinema: The Spanish Horror Film, Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films and Audrey (Hepburn) at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen along with other titles. What follows is my “Holiday Edition” where I share some of the best books (pictured above) that I’ve encountered since July. I hope both lists will encourage you to do some reading during the holidays or provide you with some shopping suggestions while you’re purchasing gifts for fellow film buffs.

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Throwing Hands: Close Range (2015)

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As with their blockbuster brethren, direct-to-video action movies thrive on previously existing brands. These cheaply made concoctions can’t afford to license comic books, so they market personas instead, whether it’s Van Damme,  Lundgren, or even Cuba Gooding Jr. While their careers as major stars were brief, fight fans flock to the familiar, so these nostalgia acts are essential to secure production funds, even if they only appear in a scene or two. This doesn’t account for the burgeoning cult surrounding actor-director duo Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine. Adkins is the rare performer who has made himself a bankable star inside of the DTV universe, despite having only landed bit parts in major films outside of it (The Expendables 2, the upcoming Doctor Strange). He is unknown among the general public, but Adkins and Florentine’s defiantly old-fashioned attitude regarding the shooting and blocking of fight scenes have made them cult heroes among the small but vocal DTV action film fanbase. Close Range is their eighth film together, and it is distilled down to the basics. A revenge drama set on the U.S.-Mexico border, it pits Adkins against a drug cartel, whom he dispatches in a series of increasingly bloody showdowns. The action takes place mainly along one rural dusty road where Adkins goes one-on-one with an SUV and one-on-dozens during an extended siege. Available on VOD and iTunes December 4th, with a limited theatrical run December 11th, Close Range is a satisfying back-to-basics brawler.

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Remembering Bruce Lee on his 75th Birthday

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Here we are . . . still talking about him. And for good reason. He tried to live what he believed. When you see him on screen you’re not just seeing a performance, you’re seeing the real human being.” – Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter.

Tomorrow, November 27, marks what would have been Bruce Lee’s 75th birthday if he hadn’t died in 1973 after suffering a fatal cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to pain medication. Lee was an incredible athlete, inspiring teacher, thoughtful philosopher and sensitive poet who was responsible for popularizing martial arts in America and broadening our narrow perception of Asian actors. Despite many personal hurdles and professional disappointments, he was able to overcome industry racism and establish a new kind of Hollywood action hero who was admired by millions around the world. Lee’s death at the young age of 32 was a great loss to us all but his family, friends and fans have kept his legacy alive and today he remains a recognizable pop culture figure as beloved and admired as Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

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Opening the Vaults: John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929)

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In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog).  Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.

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Hitchcock/Truffaut

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The 38th Denver Film Festival calls it a wrap today. When it began in 1978 it featured the works of such diverse directors as Woody Allen, Wes Craven, and Louise Malle. This year #DFF38 was held November 4 – 15 and it had an equally varied lineup that covered a wild gamut of genres from all around the world. Of specific interest to TCM viewers would be a documentary by Kent Jones that screened last night at the DFF titled Hitchcock/Truffaut. It uses a legendary 27-hour interview between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock conducted in 1962 as its starting point. The results provide an excellent launch pad for cinephiles looking to rekindle a discussion for what Hitchcock referred to as “the greatest known mass medium in the world.”  [...MORE]

Federico Fellini: The Cartoonist

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Federico Fellini is one of my favorite filmmakers so I was delighted to discover that TCM Imports is showcasing the movie maestro’s work every Sunday night throughout the month of November. In the next three weeks you can catch Nights of Cabiria (1957) on Nov. 15, Juliet of the Spirits (1965) on Nov. 22 and Satyricon (1969) on Nov. 29.

I’m particularly fond of the last two films scheduled and generally prefer Fellini’s work in the sixties due to its baroque artistry and avant-garde sensibilities. During that transformative decade the Italian director disregarded conventional storytelling technique in favor of a unique dream language, which emerged from his life experience and was filtered through his vivid imagination and esoteric interests. The results were a series of innovative, provocative and unapologetically sensual films that can still shock and surprise audiences. Fellini also had a wonderful sense of humor that was patently apparent throughout his career as a celebrated director and talented cartoonist.

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I Am Also A Fugitive From A Chain Gang: Hell’s Highway (1932)

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In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued over. Prizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and I Sell Anything).

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A Forgotten Director to Remember: George Melford

blogopener Last Thursday, I was researching early film production on Florida’s Gulf Coast for an upcoming conference. Taking a break from slogging through dozens of Florida newspapers from the 1930s, I decided to read colleague Kimberly Lindbergs’s terrific post on the Turner Classic Movies-Fathom Event for October. This month’s event consists of a double feature of the original Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, along with the Spanish-language version, which was shot at the same time. (Movie lovers have another opportunity to see the dueling Draculas this Wednesday, October 28, at a participating theater near you.) When I resumed my research, I was surprised to find multiple references to George Melford, who was the director of the Spanish version of the 1931 horror classic.

Little is known about Melford beyond his participation in this unusual moment in film history when Universal decided to produce two versions of certain titles in different languages. Their goal was to hang onto their foreign markets, who were not keen on distributing English-speaking movies. Apparently, Melford was a veteran director of the silent era, and Universal had faith that he could deliver well-crafted films for the Spanish-speaking markets.

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City Lights

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Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky agree on something when they all cite City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931) as one of their favorite films of all time. With an eye to the fact that TCM will be screening it this Wednesday, I decided to check out Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography and bee-lined to the chapter that discusses the events leading up to the release of this film. It’s a fascinating read wherein Chaplin describes the end of the silent-film era as the film industry transitioned toward sound. Chaplin’s first experience with sound films were so jarring and wretched that he originally thought “the days of sound were numbered.” Then came The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont, 1929), which although Chaplin found it “a cheap dull affair” was a huge box-office success, and “overnight every theatre began wiring for sound. That was the twilight of silent films.” Thankfully, Chaplin’s resolve to champion the art of silent films would result in the genius of City Lights and also Modern Times (1936). Even his first “talkie”, The Great Dictator (1940), squeezed out a lot of joy at the expense of the sound era. But the writing was on the wall, and it came with an ominous soundtrack. [...MORE]

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