Birdshead Revisited: Judex (1963)

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To view Judex click here.

The first time we see the magician, he is standing alone, legs spread slightly apart, a lifelike bird mask covering his head. Next to him, on a stone block, lies a lifeless white dove. He picks it up in one hand and holds it gently as he walks through the hallways of the mansion on his way to the ballroom where the gala is being held. Once there, among the other masked revelers, the dove comes to life and flies away. He has brought it back from the dead, or so it seems, and produces one after another to the delight of the guests. The  man in the mask, we suspect, is Judex, an avenger who has set out to get a rich banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), to pay back his victims or else. The actual magician portraying Judex is Channing Pollock and he didn’t speak a word of French. That didn’t matter to director Georges Franju, he just wanted a look. Besides, Judex wasn’t the lead anyway. [...MORE]

The Bank Job: Perfect Friday (1970)

PERFECT FRIDAY, Ursula Andress (front), 1970

To view Perfect Friday, click here.

There is a blessed simplicity to a heist film, with its basic elements of planning and execution. Last week I looked at an elaborate cat-and-mouse variation of this trope, The Silent Partner (1978), while today I’ll discuss a streamlined version, the lighthearted British heist film Perfect Friday (1970). They are two of the six films FilmStruck is streaming in its “How to Rob a Bank” theme (alongside The League of Gentlemen[1960], Max and the Junkmen [1971], Revanche [2008], and The Robber[2010]). Perfect Friday is shorn of any backstory or subplot, focused entirely on the robbery at hand. Stanley Baker stars as a mild mannered bank clerk looking to retire on one big score. He recruits a money hungry Lord (David Warner) and his wife (Ursula Andress) to pull off the job. But every word they speak is a lie, from promises of an equal split to the husband telling his wife he loves her. The scene is set for multiple betrayals, it is only a matter of who is holding the money-stuffed suitcase last.

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The Original Castaway: Robinson Crusoe (1954)

ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, THE (1954)

To view Robinson Crusoe click here.

Luis Buñuel, the controversial and much banned filmmaking genius, has become so associated with the surreal cinema that the idea of him directing a straightforward adventure seems, well, surreal. But in 1952, gaining funding for a joint Spanish and English language production of Robinson Crusoe (it wouldn’t be released until 1954), based on the 18th century novel by Daniel Defoe, Buñuel did just that, although Buñuel the iconoclast was never far out of sight. Starring Dan O’Herlihy in the title role, the movie invents just about every deserted island trope you’ve probably ever heard of (from the novel of course), but along the way, touches on some very controversial subject matter, both reflecting the time the novel was written, the time the movie was made and bigoted notions of the white man’s dominion over the earth.

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What’s it all about, Monte? The Shooting (1966)

SHOOTING, THE (1967)

His horse rears up his head and looks around, as if something is amiss. The horse’s rider, Willet Gashade, looks around too and as the first notes of a flute make their way into the viewer’s ears, a wave of disquiet has already inundated the surroundings. Something’s not right. Things seem… off kilter. Uneasy. Unsure. The rider makes his way to his destination but soon enough will realize it’s only a starting point to a journey that may or may not end with any sense of meaning or purpose whatsoever. Thus begins Monte Hellman’s extraordinary 1966 film, The Shooting, one of the best films of the 1960s, or any decade, really.

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Crammed Full of Genre: While the City Sleeps (1956)

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, 1956

I just did a Fritz Lang movie last week (The Big Heat from 1953) and there have been other posts on the director around these parts lately as well so forgive me if I dive into familiar waters one more time. You see, I tend to focus on the ethical dilemmas of Lang’s work, in movies like M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and, of course, The Big Heat*, where the good guys and the bad guys tend to overlap. But before I take a break from writing about Lang, I’d like to throw in one more post on what may be my biggest Lang surprise in all my years of watching him. It’s a movie that throws so many genre tropes together into one big pot, it’s a miracle any of it works at all. But it does, magnificently so. It’s one of those movies that came and went and despite having plenty of big names in the cast, it feels like a low budget movie shot on the run. This amazing little piece of work called While the City Sleeps (1956) may be Lang’s most purely enjoyable film.

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Venomous Snakes & Poison Ants: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” – Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (a variation of A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe)

In Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), viewers are reminded again and again of the “venomous snakes and poison ants” that populate the Australian outback. Despite these repeated warnings, the reptiles and insects we see are never an actual threat and cause no harm besides pilfering some leftovers from an unobserved picnic basket. The real danger is unspoken and invisible. It lurks unseen in the shadowy cracks and crevices of Hanging Rock, waiting to ensnare a group of innocent schoolgirls and their unsuspecting math teacher. As is often the case in real life, the horrors that eventually befall the characters in Weir’s film arrive without warning or reason but they leave the victims devastated as they try to make sense of a nemesis that has no fixed name and no discernible face.

This puzzling pastoral horror picture is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Cinema Passport: Australia series, a curated selection of films from the land down under that also includes Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Watched together these films provide a thought-provoking introduction to the Australian New Wave that emerged in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. Unlike many other international New Wave film movements that launched in the 1960s, Australia’s got a late start but the results are equally compelling.

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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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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]

‘Night Moves’ vs. ‘The Long Goodbye’

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TCM airs one of my favorite film noirs, Night Moves, tonight at 12:15am as part the evening’s tribute to production designer George Jenkins. This 1975 film has been on my mind recently because I am scheduled to teach a course in film noir in the fall. It has been a long time since I have been able to devote an entire semester to one genre, and I want to give my film selection some serious thought. I am torn between using Night Moves by Arthur Penn and The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman to represent the Film School Generation, when certain directors experimented with the conventions, norms, and standards of Hollywood genres. These films have been dubbed experimental noirs, deconstructed noirs, and even anti-noirs, but whatever you call them, they do represent a different treatment of the genre.

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Aaahoo! She-Wolf of London (1946)

swlposterThe setting is London in the early 1900s, where a young Scottish woman named Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing to wed her beau (Don Porter). The happy couple’s plans are interrupted when someone or something begins killing locals at a nearby park. Terrified Phyllis is certain an old Scottish curse that has plagued her family for centuries is turning her into a bloodthirsty werewolf while she sleeps but her domineering aunt Martha (Sara Haden ) and lovesick cousin Carol (Jan Wiley) seem to think otherwise. Is Phyllis a werewolf? Is she going mad? Or is something else even more sinister stalking the nearby park under the cover of night? SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946) is often dismissed as one of the lessor entries in the Universal monster cannon but while watching this briskly paced B-movie again recently after decades of reading numerous dismissals, I was swept up by the films moody atmosphere and shaken by its surprising brutality. The film may not satisfy viewers anticipating a typical monster movie but SHE-WOLF OF LONDON has plenty of things to recommend it and with Halloween quickly approaching it seemed like the perfect time to praise its unsung sinister charm.

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