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.


Sean Connery in WOMAN OF STRAW (1964)

Sir Sean Connery is celebrating his 81st birthday today and I thought it would be a great time to share my appreciation for his terrific performance in Basil Dearden’s entertaining thriller, WOMAN OF STRAW (1964). The handsome Scottish actor with a deep gravely voice and piercing dark eyes has appeared in more than 65 films during his long career but WOMAN OF STRAW is one of the few films where Connery was given the opportunity to shed his good guy image and portray a ruthless villain.


Remember My Name …or else.

Anthony Perkins is one of my favorite actors so I was thrilled when I recently got the opportunity to see Alan Rudolph’s 1978 film REMEMBER MY NAME. In the movie Perkins plays a man being stalked by his former wife (Geraldine Chaplin) but his low-key performance is just one of the elements that made REMEMBER MY NAME such a memorable viewing experience. I was predisposed to like Alan Rudolph’s neo-noir but his film surprised me in ways that I hadn’t expected and made me gain a new appreciation for the director’s work.

Rudolph forgoes simplistic plot devices and a clear narrative structure in REMEMBER MY NAME to explore the mind of Emily (Geraldine Page) who has recently been released from jail and has decided to track down her ex-husband (Perkins) and his new wife (Perkin’s real-life wife, Berry Berenson) in an attempt to frighten them. When she’s not terrorizing the couple, Emily tries to fit into conventional society by getting herself a new wardrobe, a new hairstyle and a new job but these superficial attempts at living mask untapped passions and a seething bitterness that have laid dormant for years. Emily is not a happy woman and she aggressively dismisses anyone that gets in her way while seeking revenge on the one person who she believes has made her life a living hell. That person is Neil, her ex-husband, who is surprisingly sympathetic at first. I’ve always been impressed with the ways in which Anthony Perkins can make the most despicable characters seem benign and in REMEMBER MY NAME he does an exceptional job of making us think that Neil is a considerate and caring man who is deeply concerned for the safety of his family. But his benevolent behavior masks a troubled past full of dark secrets and lies that never fully reveal themselves to the audience. The film also features brief but memorable performances from Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard and in particular Moses Gunn, as the considerate manager of the halfway house that Emily is forced to live in after leaving prison.


What Ever Happened to Jennifer?

Jennifer’s gone missing. She was supposed to be looking after her uncle’s sprawling estate, which appears to have been abandoned since the Great Depression, but no one has seen her in weeks. Did she run off with an unknown lover? Did she swindle an undisclosed sum of money from her previous boss and head to Mexico on a cruise ship? Or was Jennifer murdered by a mysterious killer and buried somewhere on the property? These are the questions that will plague Agnes Langly (Ida Lupino) after she’s hired to replace the missing woman as the new caretaker in Joel Newton’s low-key thriller simply titled JENNIFER (1953).


Authority Is the Child of Obedience

Are human beings inherently cruel or do we learn cruelty by example? Does our genetic makeup dictate our personalities at birth or are we shaped by numerous circumstances including our environments and upbringing? To borrow the title of a current popular song, are we “born this way” or are we more complex creatures than our personal DNA map might suggest? The nature vs. nurture debate has been going on for centuries and many films have attempted to tackle it head on. One of the best examples of this is Peter Brooks’ extraordinary film adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1963), which argues that people are savages at heart and in the right circumstances we’re all likely to turn on one another. Another film, which I recently had the opportunity to watch, champions the other side of the argument. John Mackenzie’s haunting film adaptation of Giles Cooper’s radio play UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO (1971) questions the example set by Lord of the Flies and suggests that we’re taught savage behaviors, which could manifest in acts of violence.


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