Fantomas Strikes Back

Having brought up Dr. Mabuse recently, naturally my thoughts also flit to Fantômas.  I had promised a while back that I would eventually address Andre Hunebelle’s 1960s Fantômas revival in this blog, and now seems the best time to live up to my word.  Along with last week’s visit to Dr. Mabusiana, I’m going to spend the next several weeks exploring the world of pulp mysteries on film—specifically how different filmmakers have approached the task of rendering in cinematic terms a corpus of literature that flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Hunebelle Fantômas films are not readily available for viewing.  It is the case that anyone with an Amazon account can obtain a DVD box set of the entire trilogy—but this import set will come without English subtitles and will only be playable in a region-free player, so it’ll alienate most casual American viewers.  With that in mind, I’m going to be fairly heavy on clips this week, so give you a good sense of what these three films are really like.  I’ve added subtitles to these clips from an online source of fan-created subtitles.  Given the awkward wording, I’m guessing by “fan-subbed” they really mean “ran the French script through Google Translate and performed no proof-reading at all.”


Hammer does Hitchcock

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at secret Hitchcock remakes—movies that may or may not have taken direct inspiration from Hitchcock’s classics, but at least pretended they didn’t.  Those films attempt to stand on their own merits, independent of any comparisons to Hitchcock that their content might invite.

But we haven’t yet addressed the thorny mess of overt Hitchcock remakes—the ones that openly identify themselves as updates of movies made by the Master of Suspense.  Somehow that makes a significant difference—and the direct comparisons are never flattering.

So when we come to something like Hammer’s 1979 version of The Lady Vanishes, not only do we have the worrisome aspect of a direct Hitchcock remake, we also have the exceedingly problematic audience expectations generated by the phrase “Hammer does Hitchcock.”


Hitchcock vs. Dracula

By sheer coincidence, in one of those warpings of reality that make people believe in Fate or powers greater than themselves, I happened to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt for the very first time just a few days after seeing The Return of Dracula.  And to quote Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference in the world.” 


Seven vs. Dr. Phibes

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.  And I was wrong.

I figured the breakout thriller to see in 1995 was going to be Copycat.  I know, I know, but hear me out—I wasn’t alone.  A lot of industry press at the time leaned the same way.  The previews for Copycat made it look like Silence of the Lambs meets Thelma and Louise, and it has Sigourney Weaver in it.  Actually, that’s about all I can say—I never did see Copycat, which puts me squarely in the majority.

Instead, when my wife Julie and I decided to go to the theater, she insisted on Seven instead (or Se7en, if I’m going to follow the conventions of Video Watchdog, which I might as well).  She advocated loudly, strongly, and effectively for Se7en, and god bless her for it.


Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!


Spy Games: Dirk Bogarde – The Reluctant International Man of Mystery

British actor Dirk Bogarde never played James Bond but he did appear in a handful of interesting spy films made during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He may not have resembled the tough, no-nonsense brute that many associate with 007 but Bogarde’s devilish charm, quick wit, understated elegance and roguish good looks made him a good candidate for playing the British secret service agent or his evil nemesis. For my latest installment of Spy Games I thought I’d take a look at the various spy spoofs and espionage thrillers that Bogarde appeared in and discuss their questionable merits. While some might find Bogarde’s contributions to the spy genre unimpressive, I think the following films are indispensable fun and fascinating footnotes in the actor’s long and impressive career although Bogarde himself would probably disagree with me.

Most of the spy films Bogarde appeared in weren’t particularly successful at the box office and critics rarely gave them the time of day. In numerous letters and books that the actor published he openly admits that he often took these roles to pay the bills. There was little motivation to make these movies besides a paycheck but today they’re testaments to Bogarde’s incredible professionalism, renowned talent and passion for his craft, which is apparent in every one of these movies. No matter how flimsy the script was or how disengaged his fellow cast members became, Bogarde proves himself to be a consummate professional. He’s an actor’s actor if there ever was one.


Edward L. Cahn’s You Have To Run Fast (1961)

Edward L. Cahn directed 11 films in 1961, and You Have to Run Fast was one of them. MGM recently released it on their DVD burn-on-demand service in a crisp transfer, making it easy to appreciate the thriller’s tight construction and  open-air location shooting. The AFI Catalog lists no production dates but it was undoubtedly completed in a week or two before Cahn and producer Robert E. Kent moved on to the next programmer (17 of which are now streaming on Netflix). I was tipped to Cahn’s work by Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in the November/December 2011 Film Comment, where he says, “Cahn…seemed to embrace the aesthetic of speed with a passion and personal commitment not always apparent in the work of his more feverishly productive Poverty Row peers.” Cahn reportedly filmed “an astonishing 40 setups a day”, but as You Have to Run Fast clearly shows, they flow with an ironclad visual logic, and establish a moral equivalency between a mob boss and the innocent he is tracking down.


Remaking Ichikawa

Agatha Christie aficionados and detective fiction fans take note: Behind the deceptively bland title The Inugami Family lies a superb pulp mystery of the highest order–a cinematic classic that won awards, influenced a generation, and remains as thrilling today as when it was made.  Those of you who are inspired by this blog to rush out and track down an import DVD of this gem for yourself will discover that in fact, two movies with the exact same title, the same cast and makers, and pretty much the same running time and content exist.  Which makes telling the two apart a rather challenging task, to the newbie.  As with Detour recently, we are here to discuss a slavishly literal remake, only this time it’s a remake, thirty years to the day later, from the same director.  And therein lies our tale…

Inugami Family


Detour’s Detour

Once upon a time there was a motion picture called Detour (1945). It was a small, wiry thing, gristle and bone. It would have been the runt of any litter, except for the sad fact that it came from a litter of runts, movies made for pocket change and thrust out into the world without support, left to fend for themselves in a harsh and competitive environment.

What Detour lacked in polish and graces it made up for with a steely constitution. It was made of stern stuff, this angry little poem written in the language of failure and defeat. Its flickering frames contain a story of an aspiring artist whose talent would seem to merit one kind of fate, glorious and celebratory, but whose life is shuttled down a cruel detour to a very different destination. He begins his adventure dreaming of a new life in a sunnier world, and finishes up lost and lonely, an exile.


On Watching Vertigo on the Big Screen in 35mm with an Audience

On a cold, blustery Chicago afternoon, I was safely tucked in the back row of a theater watching Vertigo as it was intended to be seen—on the big screen in 35mm with a theater full of movie buffs, cinephiles, and Hitchcock fans.  The rich, saturated colors of the new print were a treat after seeing so many contemporary films shot in the drab, flat, burnished colors of digital cinematography. The film was followed by a commentary and discussion led by mystery writer Sara Paretsky and psychologist James W. Anderson, a professor at Northwestern University. Watching Vertigo on the big screen helped me notice details that had eluded me on previous viewings, while comments by Paretsky and Anderson offered a different point of view on the film. I also learned a great deal from the insightful observations of the audience members.

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