The Zombie King: RIP George A. Romero

Way back in 1970, my cousins and I went to a horror double feature at the old Olympia Theater in New Bedford. The main attraction was called EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  Quite frankly, it sucked, but the bottom half of that double bill was an obscure black & white films that scared the shit out of us! That movie was George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

NOTLD (1968)

From the creepy opening in a cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) to the gross-out shots of zombies feasting on human entrails, from the little girl eating her father’s corpse to the tragic final scene when the hero (a black man, no less!) is shot by the cops, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was an edge-of-your-seat nightmare of horror. There were no stars in it, unless you count Bill Cardille, a local Pittsburgh DJ and horror host known around these parts as ‘The Voice of Professional Wrestling’. As a 12-year-old horror fanatic, I absolutely loved it, and still do today, thanks to the genius of George A. Romero.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

George Romero’s dark, apocalyptic vision opened the floodgates for zombie movies to come. He followed up NOTLD with 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, set inside a suburban shopping mall (where I happened to see it!), and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, the final chapter in his original “Zombie Trilogy” (though there’d be more walking dead to come). Born and raised in the Bronx, Romero attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which became his home base. Unlike other low-budget horror filmmakers (Tobe Hooper, for example), Romero stayed true to his roots, making all his movies in and around the Pittsburgh area, refusing to “go Hollywood”.

Martin (1978)

His movies are the stuff nightmares are made of: THE CRAZIES (1973) deals with a biological weapon accidentally unleashed, turning people into homicidal maniacs. MARTIN (1978), Romero’s personal favorite, features both religious fanaticism and vampirism. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) is the bizarre tale of a traveling medieval show with jousters on motorcycles. CREEPSHOW (1982), a collaboration with Stephen King, has a quintet of stories in the style of 50’s EC Comics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR. MONKEY SHINES (1988) involves a bond between a quadriplegic man and a service monkey that turns deadly. TWO EVIL EYES (1990) is another collaboration, this time with Italian maestro Dario Argento, with each director taking on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. THE DARK HALF (1993) is one of the most successful adaptations of a Stephen King novel put to film.

NOTLD (1968)

But it’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that everyone will remember Romero for, a shocking masterpiece of terror that’s been often imitated, but never duplicated. It still scares the hell out of me, and I’m going to go dust off my VHS copy and watch it right now. I think George would’ve wanted it that way.

Bloody Good Show: Franco Nero in DJANGO (Euro International 1966)

A solitary man is dragging a coffin through bleak, rocky terrain. He comes across a helpless female tied to posts, being whipped by a gang of banditos. A group of mercenaries, adorned in red scarves, shoot down the bandits. The group, members of ex-Confederate Major Jackson’s marauders, plan on burning the woman alive. The solitary man, watching all this, guns down her attackers with blinding speed, freeing her and offering protection. The man’s name is… DJANGO!

Any resemblance between Sergio Corbucci’s seminal 1966 Spaghetti Western and Sergio Leone’s 1964 A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS   is not strictly coincidental. Both movies are uncredited adaptations of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 YOJIMBO, though Corbucci’s version of the tale takes more liberties and  he succeeds to out-Leone Leone with the brutal, unrelenting violence, making this a must-see film for fans of the genre.

Django takes the woman, a half-Mexican named Maria, to a desolate ghost town inhabited only by saloon proprietor Nathaniel and a brood of colorfully dressed whores. The town is considered neutral territory for two warring factions, Jackson’s KKK-like rebels and “General” Hugo Rodriguez’s band of revolutionaries. When Jackson and his men enter the tavern, we learn what Django’s been keeping in that coffin… a mitrailleuse machine gun, which he uses to obliterate most of Jackson’s gang! Soon The General and his troops ride into town, and Django, who once saved Hugo’s life, has a plan to purchase more machine guns for Hugo’s cause, by stealing the gold hidden in the Mexican Army stronghold Ft. Charriba.

Django, Hugo, and two men hide in Nathaniel’s wagon, pretending to be the whores, and pull a bloody raid, witnessed by none other than the vengeful Major Jackson. Django is now ready to take his share of the gold and move on, but Hugo is reluctant to part with either it or Django right away so, while the revolutionaries revel in their good fortune, Django re-steals the gold, loading it in his coffin. He sets up his machine gun to thwart anyone attempting to enter its location and sets to ride off, but Maria forces him to take her along. Coming to a rickety bridge, Django prepares to part ways with Maria, only to have the gold laden coffin slide into the quicksand below! Maria tries to help Django extricate himself from the quagmire and is shot down by Hugo’s men. Django is pulled from the quicksand and suffers an even worse fate, viciously beaten with a rifle butt and trampled by horses, leaving him a broken, bloody mess.

Hugo and his pistoleros ride off, only to be ambushed and slaughtered by Jackson and the Mexican Army. Django and Maria, both still alive, make it back to Nathaniel’s, and Django confesses he must kill Jackson, the man who murdered his former fiance, or none of them will get any peace. The final confrontation in the cemetery between Django, broken hands and all, and Jackson is a masterpiece of Spaghetti Western cinema.

Corbucci’s judicious use of wide-angled shots, overhead views, and close-ups, while similar to Leone, are far from derivative, and the director stakes out his own unique style, making art out of all the carnage. There are shocking scenes like the one where Hugo cuts off the ear of one of Jackson’s men and force feeds it to him, then shoots him in the back. A barroom fight between Django and one of Hugo’s men is well-staged, and capped off by Hugo plunging an axe into his own soldier’s back! The sight of Django brutally beaten and trampled is both horrifying and unforgettable. Then there’s that cemetery finale, done by Leone and Kurosawa in the previous versions, but with a distinct Corbucci twist.

Franco Nero became an international star with DJANGO, appearing in two more Corbucci  westerns (THE MERCENARY, COMPANEROS), and returned to the character in 1987’s DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN. There are over 30 “unofficial” sequels featuring Django, with actors Tomas Milian, James Philbrook, Franco Franchi (of the comedy team Franco & Ciccio), and Terence Hill all tackling the part. Mention must be made of DP Enzo Barboni’s stunning photography and the score by Luis Enrique Bacalov (who won an Oscar for 1996’s IL POSTINO), featuring a theme song by European pop star (and American ex-pat) Rocky Roberts.

The movie and character have influenced everyone from Quintin Tarantino (his DJANGO UNCHAINED even features the same theme song, and a cameo by Nero) to pro wrestler The Undertaker. DJANGO played briefly in Los Angeles in 1966 before gaining wider distribution in an edited version in 1972. The print I saw on Sony Classics was the uncut (though dubbed) original, and that’s definitely the one you want to watch. DJANGO is also available on both DVD and Blu-Ray, and if you’re into Spaghetti Westerns, rush out and buy a copy today.

 

 

Familiar Faces #3: Esther Howard, Grand Dame of Film Noir

Esther Howard (1892-1965) graced the screen in over 100 appearances, but it’s her work in the shadowy world of film noir for which she’s best remembered. A deft comedienne, Esther was also a member in good standing of Preston Sturges’ stock company, cast in seven of his films. Her matronly looks and acting talent allowed her to play a rich, haughty dowager or drunken old floozy with equal aplomb. Esther may not have been a big star, but her presence gave a lift to any movie she was in, big or small.

Esther in 1931’s “The Vice Squad” (w/Judith Wood)

She was already an established stage actress when she entered movies in 1930. Talkies were all the rage, and Esther began her screen career appearing in Vitaphone shorts opposite the likes of Franklin Pangborn. Her first feature was 1931’s THE VICE SQUAD, a Pre-Code drama starring Kay Francis and Paul Lukas, with Esther billed sixth. More movies found her down in the cast lists, or sometimes unbilled: MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932), THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE (’35), DEAD END (’37), and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (’38) were among her many credits.

Esther’s got her eyes on Ollie in 1944’s “The Big Noise”

Esther’s flair for comedy found her supporting many classic comics of the era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s COCKEYED CAVALIERS (’34) places her square among the team’s medieval mirth. The short THE MISSES STOOGES (’35) has Esther hosting a swanky society party ruined by Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly. The bawdy KLONDIKE ANNIE (’36) pairs her with the inimitable Mae West. 1939’s THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE sees her briefly as a florist. In MY FAVORITE BLONDE (’40), she’s involved with Bob Hope’s zany shenanigans. Laurel & Hardy’s THE BIG NOISE (’44) has Esther on the make for Ollie. She has a bit in the Three Stooges short IDLE ROOMERS (’44), and played Andy Clyde’s wife in seven of his Columbia shorts.

As Miz Zeffie in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)

Her association with writer/director Preston Sturges began with his first in the director’s chair, 1940’s THE GREAT MCGINTY. From there, Esther went to  appear in six more Sturges classics. SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS   (’41) casts her as a man-hungry farm widow setting her sights on Joel McCrea. THE PALM BEACH STORY (’42) finds Esther married to the wealthy “Wienie King”. She had three Sturges films released in 1944: MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK has Esther embroiled in the saga of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), she serves as a dentist’s guinea pig in THE GREAT MOMENT, and plays Mayor Raymond Walburn’s wife in HAIL THE CONQUORING HERO. Her last with Preston Sturges was also his last American-made film, 1949’s THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND.

As boozy Mrs. Kraft in 1947’s “Born to Kill”

Despite all this, it is her roles in film noir for which Esther Howard is most closely associated. In 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET , she plays a key role as the duplicitous drunk Jessie Florian, who tries to throw Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) off Velma’s trail. Her part as the waitress in Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945) is small, but her presence adds much to this low-budget masterpiece. In DICK TRACY VS CUEBALL (’46), she has a meaty role as Filthy Flora, proprietor of the Dripping Dagger. My favorite Esther Howard noir is Robert Wise’s BORN TO KILL , where she plays nosy boarding house owner Mrs. Kraft, menaced by Lawrence Tierney and his sneaky sycophant Elisha Cook Jr. She closed out her film noir career with a pair of 1949 films: Mark Robson’s CHAMPION (as boxer Kirk Douglas’s mother) and THE CROOKED WAY (a bit as a hotel proprietor).

Mrs. Florian (Esther) is wary of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in 1944’s “Murder, My Sweet”

Esther Howard closed out her film career completely by returning to comedy as Joe Besser’s aunt in the 1952 short CAUGHT ON THE BOUNCE. She’s still remembered today for both the dark worlds of film noir and classic comedy. Actresses like Esther Howard are part of what makes watching these films so special, their small but memorable contributions enhancing our viewing experience. All hail Esther Howard!

 

Early Hitchcock: BLACKMAIL (1929) and MURDER! (1930)

TCM is running Alfred Hitchcock  movies all month long under the umbrella of “50 Years of Hitchcock” and, in conjunction with Ball State University, conducting a six-week course on The Master of Suspense’s life and works. Since I’m participating, I figured it would be a good excuse for me to write some blog posts on Hitchcock’s films, sort of killing two birds with one stone. Today I’d like to discuss two of his early talking films, both produced at British International Pictures. Let’s start with Hitchcock’s first “talkie”, 1929’s BLACKMAIL.

BLACKMAIL was originally scheduled to be a silent film with some sound sequences, but Hitchcock clandestinely shot the whole thing with sound. Producer John Maxwell liked what he saw and released it in both silent and sound versions. BLACKMAIL is considered the first British talkie, though some of its scenes are silent with music only, and Hitchcock, ever the innovator, was there first. It was only his 11th film in the director’s chair, and evidence of “The Hitchcock Touch” was already emerging.

The plot centers on Alice White, who ditches her police detective boyfriend Frank Webber for a date with Crewe, an artist. Crewe invites her up to his studio apartment, and after persuading her to put on a ballerina outfit, attempts to rape her. There’s a struggle (unseen behind a curtain), Alice reaches for a knife, and stabs her assailant to death. Horrified by the act, Alice wanders in a daze down the streets of Chelsea, imagining a neon sign touting a shaker of gin turning into a stabbing knife, and a wino’s arm the would-be rapist’s lifeless limb. Frank, one of the investigators assigned to the case, stumbles upon Alice’s glove in the flat and hides it from his colleagues. But there’s a fly in the ointment: a small time crook named Tracy, who was outside casing the joint when the murder occurred, has possession of Alice’s other glove, and isn’t above indulging in a little game of… blackmail!

Hitchcock seems to be enjoying this new toy of sound, utilizing it to add punctuation to scenes. When the local gossip chatters on and on about the murder while a still freaked out Alice and her parents have breakfast, the word “knife” is repeated over and over, until all Alice (and the viewer) hears is “knife”, the rest becoming garbled noise, as Alice tries to slice bread, finally throwing the repulsive object across the room, jolting both her parents and the audience! Music, figuring so prominently in Hitch’s later films, is featured to great advantage, as the soon-to-be dead  rapist (who’s played by Cyril Ritchard, known to millions of baby boomers as Captain Hook in the oft-repeated TV production of PETER PAN) croons a ditty to Alice called “Miss Up-To-Date”.

For an early talkie, the film is rarely static, as Hitchcock keeps a lively pace despite the limitations of the new sound equipment. His black humor is showcased when, while Alice walks down the street in a stupor, we see a marquee advertising “A New Comedy”, and in the ending’s strange turn of events. Hitchcock’s voyeurism fetish shows up as we see Alice dress and undress several times, as do his shots of imposing staircases and a chase scene in a highly public place (in this case the British Museum, juxtaposed among some bizarre artifacts). And of course, Hitchcock does one of his famous cameos, being annoyed by an obnoxious brat aboard a train (another familiar Hitch motif).

MURDER! is Hitchcock’s only whodunit, a genre he allegedly detested. Unlike BLACKMAIL, MURDER! is very static, only really coming to life during the final scene set in a circus. Herbert Marshall  plays Sir John Menier, an actor sitting on a jury pressured to convict a young actress of the title crime, who opens his own private investigation before she’s scheduled to hang. It’s a Hitchcockian theme, the amateur sleuth thrown into an extraordinary circumstance, but the film dragged for me, hampered by the conventions of the genre. It’s based on a play by the director’s friend Gerald du Maurier, whose daughter Daphne’s books were later adapted into Hitchcock films – JAMAICA INN, REBECCA, and THE BIRDS.

Classical music is used in the soundtrack, but since the entire orchestra was on set to play it live, it’s too damn loud and drowns out some of the dialog. Marshall had to record his lines ahead of time and mouth them, but he’s still nearly unintelligible in one scene. The film starts off well, with a scream, but soon gets bogged down by its slow, deliberate pace. There are traces of the “Hitchcock Touch” (black humor, voyeurism, mirror reflections), and even a brief cameo, but on the whole MURDER! is lesser Hitchcock, and I’d recommend it only to completests and students of the director. In MURDER!, the director is dabbling in a genre he wasn’t really interested in, and despite a few “Hitchcock Touches”, doesn’t hold up well. BLACKMAIL, on the other hand,  is an engaging film that shows Alfred Hitchcock adapting well to the new medium of sound films, and foreshadows greater things to come.   And there’ll certainly be more Hitchcock to come here in the very near future!

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 13: ALL-STAR WESTERN ROUNDUP!

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game is tomorrow night, and in honor of that All-American pastime I’ve corralled an All-Star lineup of (mostly) All-American Westerns filled of blazing six-guns, galloping horses, barroom brawls, sexy saloon gals, and wide-open spaces. Hot damn, that DVR sure enough gets filled up mighty fast! Saddle up and enjoy these capsule looks at one of my favorite genres, the Western:

THE CARIBOO TRAIL (20th Century-Fox, 1950; D: Edwin L. Marin) – Randolph Scott   rides tall in the saddle driving his cattle to Vancouver gold rush country in this exciting oater filled with stampedes, Indian attacks, bad hombres, shoot outs, and fisticuffs. There’s a pretty saloon keeper (Karin Booth), a mean town boss (Victor Jory), and Scott’s bitter ex-pardner (Bill Williams), who had to have his arm amputated along the trail. Scenic Colorado stands in for Canada’s Great Northwest, shot in gorgeous Cinecolor by DP Fred Jackman Jr. Look for young Jim Davis and Dale Robertson in supporting parts. The movie doesn’t break any new ground, but for genre fans it’s a real treat! Fun Fact: The always delightful Gabby Hayes plays loveable old windbag Grizzly in his final feature film appearance.

FACE OF A FUGITIVE (Columbia 1959; D: Paul Wendkos) – Escaped outlaw on the run Fred MacMurray settles in the town of Tangle Blue, where he gets tangled up with pretty shopkeeper Dorothy Green, her sheriff brother Lin McCarthy, and evil landowner Alan Baxter. Routine ‘B’ Western elevated somewhat by MacMurray’s low-key performance, Wendkos’ taut direction, and Wilfred M. Cline’s moody cinematography. Fred is always watchable. Fun Fact: Young James Coburn   makes his second film appearance as one of Baxter’s hired hands.

ARIZONA RAIDERS (Columbia 1965; D: William Whitney) – Above-average Audie Murphy   ‘B’ outing, with the star and his pal Ben Cooper a pair of ex-Quantrill Raiders sprung from prison by the newly appointed head of the Arizona Rangers to hunt down some remaining guerillas terrorizing the territory. Some well-staged action by director Whitney, a veteran of Republic Pictures serials and sagebrush sagas. It’s fun to see another serial & sagebrush vet, the great Buster Crabbe as Ranger Captain Andrews, and the supporting cast features slimy baddies Michael Dante and George Keymas, Gloria Talbott as an Indian maiden, and Ray Stricklyn as Audie’s kid bro. I could’ve done without the opening exposition by Booth Colman as a newspaper editor talking directly to the camera; otherwise this is highly recommended! Fun Fact #1: Unintentionally funny line – Stricklyn (while lying mortally wounded): “Clint, it’s… it’s getting kinda dark” Murphy: “Well, it’s a little cloudy, Danny”! Fun Fact #2: Miss Talbott is well-known to horror genre buffs for her roles in DAUGHTER OF DR. JEKYLL, THE CYCLOPS, and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE!

RIDE BEYOND VENGEANCE (Columbia 1966; D; Bernard McEveety) – An interesting if flawed attempt at a psychological Western, aided by a solid supporting cast. A modern-day bartender in Cold Iron, Texas (Arthur O’Connell) relates to a census taker (James MacArthur) the legend of “The Day of the Reprisals”, a fateful night in town history. Flashbacks take us to 1884, when buffalo hunter Jonas Trapp (Chuck Connors), returning home to his wife (Kathryn Hays) after 11 years, gets bushwhackers by a trio of nasties (Michael Rennie, Claude Akins, Bill Bixby), who brand him with a red-hot iron and steal his $17,000 savings. Now Jonas goes out for revenge to reclaim both his money and his wife. The mainly backlot sets and a sometimes weak script keep this strictly ‘B’ level, but a game attempt nonetheless. The impressive cast features Buddy Baer, Joan Blondell , Jamie Farr, Paul Fix (Chuck’s RIFLEMAN costar), Frank Gorshin, Gloria Grahame , Robert Q. Lewis, Gary Merrill, and Ruth Warrick. Folk singer Glenn Yarbrough (“Baby, the Rain Must Fall”) sings the title tune. Not a classic, but definitely worth a look. Fun Fact: Production company Goodson/Todman were better known for their myriad TV game shows – BEAT THE CLOCK, FAMILY FEUD, MATCH GAME, PRICE IS RIGHT, WHAT’S MY LINE, et al.

CHISUM (Warner Bros 1970; D: Andrew V. McLaglen) – Cattle baron John Wayne takes on rival town boss Forrest Tucker during the famous Lincoln County Cattle War, with William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid (Geoffey Deuel) thrown in for good measure. This will seem like a rehash to fans of Duke’s older, better movies, with so many Familiar Faces from previous vehicles ( John Agar , Christopher George, Richard Jaeckel Hank Worden , etc etc) the set must’ve seemed like old home week. Ben Johnson adds some spice as Wayne’s mumbling, grumbling sidekick Pepper, William Clothier’s shots of scenic Durango, Mexico are breathtaking, and the finale (featuring a cattle stampede through town and a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Wayne and Tucker) is fairly exciting. Not one of his best outings, but hey… it’s a John Wayne Movie! That alone makes it worth watching! Fun Fact: Country star Merle Haggard   sings the tune “Turn Me Around”, and actor William Conrad does a hip-hop rap over the title credits. Just kidding about that last tidbit, I wanted to make sure you were still paying attention!

       

ADIOS, SABATA (United Artists 1971; D: Gianfranco Parolini) –  Lesser but highly enjoyable entry in the Spaghetti Western canon. This is the second of Parolini’s Sabata Trilogy, with black-clad Yul Brynner taking over for Lee Van Cleef in the title role (Van Cleef returned for the final film). “Soldier of Fortune” Sabata teams with frenemy Ballantine and a colorful band of Mexican revolutionaries to steal Emperor Maximilian’s gold and defeat the sadistic Colonel Skimmel. The bare-bones plot is just an excuse for Parolini (billed in the U.S. print as “Frank Kramer”) to assault our senses with an almost non-stop barrage of violent set pieces, well shot by DP Sandro Mancori. Yul gets off some snappy one-liners, and his sawed-off repeating rifle is way cool, as is Bruno Nicolai’s ersatz Ennio Morricone score. Kick back, pop open an adult beverage, and enjoy the action! Fun Fact: Minor late 50s/early 60s teen idol Dean Reed, who embraced leftist politics and became more successful as an ex-pat entertainer, plays the part of Ballantine.      

Ride along with other “Cleaning Out the DVR” posts:

Pre-Code Confidential #13: Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH (MGM 1932)

Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917,  had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”.  The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.

Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive shoulders. Morley is  Laura, an American just released from prison with no visible means of support. She runs up a hefty tab and is unable to pay, so Polakai takes care of it. Later, Laura is walking the streets and spotted by a local polizeibeamte. The smitten Polakai takes her in, giving this stranger in a strange land a place to stay, much to the shock of his neighbors.

What Polakai doesn’t know is Laura is carrying a torch for her lover, the still incarcerated Nicky (Cortez), as well as carrying Nicky’s baby! Polakai catches her trying to lift his stash of cash, and she gives him a sob story about helping spring her “brother” from jail, so the naïve rassler insists on helping her once again. When Nicky is released, and finds out Laura’s pregnant, the rat drops her like a hot weinerschnitzel and skedaddles back to the states. This leaves Laura with little choice: convincing Polakai she’s carrying his child, the dumb brute does the honorable thing and marries her.

Polakai wins the championship of Germany while she gives birth to a son, then  takes his new family in tow and comes to America to compete for the World’s Championship. Now the roles are reversed, with Polakai the “stranger in a strange land”.  Slimy Nicky worms his way back into the picture and becomes Polakai’s manager, but when the big lug learns the American rasslin’ racket is fixed, he refuses to play ball and decides to return to Germany. Nicky, not wanting to lose his new meal ticket, smacks Laura around to force her to convince him otherwise. She achieves this by leaving him, backing Polakai into a corner, and the hulking grappler agrees to “wrestle crooked”. He discovers the effects of American bootleg whiskey and hits the bottle hard, unable to function on the night of his big championship bout. Nicky is steamed when the brute is unable to get out of bed and shoves Laura to the floor, angering the giant. She confesses everything to Polakai, who rises from his sickbed and strangles Nicky. Polakai is arrested shortly after winning the title, and Laura visits him in prison, stating she’s leaving town, but Polakai begs her to stay. Despite all that’s occurred, he’s still in love with his American liebchin.

Appropriately, since half the film is set in Germany, Ford utilizes an Expressionistic style in FLESH. The director had worked alongside F.W. Murnau on the Fox lot, and Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) was an eye-opener for Ford. He considered it a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it heavily influenced Ford’s silents FOUR SONS (1928) and HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928), as well as his later, more “arty” films like THE INFORMER, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, and (to a certain extent) THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Ford’s signature doorway motif shows up, as do some marvelous overhead shots, and the use of shadows give FLESH even more of an “Ufa” feel.  Though everybody knows Ford called the shot selections on his films, DP Arthur Edeson was no slouch; Edeson was the man behind the camera for such classics as FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, THE MALTESE FALCON, SERGEANT YORK, and CASABLANCA , and surely must’ve had some input into the look of the film.

A whole host of writers worked on the screenplay for FLESH, both credited and uncredited. Film director Edmund Goulding is credited with the story, adapted by writers Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf. Moss Hart wrote the dialog, while William Faulkner, John W. Considine Jr. and Hanns Kraly made uncredited contributions. Faulkner’s participation inspired the Coen Brothers to parody him “writing a Wallace Beery wrestling story” in their 1991 film BARTON FINK.

Beery goes for pathos as the dim-witted but kind-hearted bear Polakai, although even John Ford himself couldn’t restrain the actor completely from mugging for the camera (this would be their only film together). Karen Morley (Laura) is superb in a difficult role, as she was in the Pre-Codes SCARFACE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT, and King Vidor’s excellent 1934 OUR DAILY BREAD. Morley was a fine actress whose career, along with husband Lloyd Gough, was ruined by HUAC in 1947. Ricardo Cortez is vile as ever in the part of Nicky; the former “competitor” to Valentino’s Latin Lover crown made a career out of playing low-down snakes in 30’s films before turning to directing. Familiar Faces rounding out the cast are Vince Barnett , Herman Bing, Ed Brophy , Jean Hersholt, Wilbur Mack, John Miljan, and Frank Reicher . Ford favorite Ward Bond   plays one of Beery’s early sparring partners, and ex-wrestler Nat Pendleton  is cast as (what else?) a wrestler. The film also features an appearance by real life heavyweight champ Wladek Zbyszko, who fought such greats of the era as “Strangler” Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher.

I’m unsure why Ford chose to pull his name from the director’s credit. FLESH isn’t a bad movie by any means, and in fact is quite entertaining. It’s been said he felt constricted working at MGM, and didn’t work at the studio again until 1945’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. By that time, John Ford had already won three of his record four directing Oscars, and was a force to be reckoned with in cinema. FLESH offers viewers a chance to see the master in an early, experimental stage, and for that reason alone deserves to be seen.

 

Book Review: SEX IN THE CINEMA The ‘Pre-Code’ Years (1929-1934) by Lou Sabini (Bear Manor Media 2017)

Those of you who faithfully follow this blog know what a huge fan of Pre-Code films I am, even devoting an entire series to them, “Pre Code Confidential”. Well, film scholar and all-around good guy Lou Sabini has gone a step further and written a new book, SEX IN THE CINEMA: THE PRE-CODE YEARS, published by the fine folks over at Bear Manor Media, a handy reference guide to 107 Pre-Code films covering topics like illicit sex, gangland violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, abortion, and Busby Berkeley… what more could a Pre-Code fan ask for!!

Helen Twelvetrees & Charles Bickford in 1932’s PANAMA FLO

Out of the 107 movies covered here, I’ve seen a mere 36, and covered seven on CRV. That will certainly change, as a few of them are sitting in my DVR ready to be enjoyed (thanks, TCM!). Lou was a student of noted film historian/collector William K. Everson (who wrote the seminal CLASSICS OF THE HORROR FILM, among others), and the man obviously knows his subject matter. Each entry is crammed with a detailed plot synopsis, background information, and biographical data on the stars and directors behind the films, all in a light, easy to understand manner for those unfamiliar with the era. There are some Pre-Codes included even I’ve never heard of before! A few that definitely piqued my interest are THE FINGER POINTS (an early gangster role for Clark Gable), PALMY DAYS (featuring a musical number entitled “Bend Down, Sister”!), and PANAMA FLO (with the marvelous but forgotten Helen Twelvetrees).

Joan Blondell in 1931’s BLONDE CRAZY

Lou Sabini runs an excellent Facebook page for film fans called MY ‘REEL’ LIFE, on which your humble scribe is a regular contributor. His latest book serves as both an essential primer for those unfamiliar with the Pre-Code era and a fun look back for fans of these wild & wooly films. It’s packed with movie stills and behind the scenes anecdotes, and cinemaphiles of any era will want to own it. It’s available from Bear Manor Media  , purveyors of some great film-related books, Amazon, and wherever fine books are sold. Pick up your copy today and discover the joys of SEX IN THE CINEMA: THE PRE-CODE YEARS!

Hot in Argentina: Rita Hayworth in GILDA (Columbia 1946)

If COVER GIRL made Rita Hayworth a star, then GILDA propelled her into the stratosphere. This 1946 film noir cast Rita at her smoking hot best as the femme fatale to end ’em all. Surrounded by a Grade A cast and sumptuous sets, GILDA gives us the dark side of CASABLANCA , moved to Buenos Aires and featuring star-crossed lovers who are at lot less noble than Rick and Ilsa ever were.

“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me”, Hayworth is famously quoted as saying. Who could blame them, as Rita is absolutely stunning in this film. From our first glimpse of her, popping into view with that iconic hair flip…

…to her sultry faux striptease singing “Put the Blame on Mame”, Rita burns up the screen with her smoldering sexuality. Lines like “If I’d been a ranch,  they’d’ve named me the Bar Nothing” leave no doubt as to Gilda’s character, a woman unafraid using her feminine wiles to get her way. It’s an electrifying performance, and Hayworth plays up her erotic charms to the nth degree.

Glenn Ford  returned to the screen after his WWII stint in the Naval Reserve to play Johnny Farrell, Gilda’s ex-lover and narrator of the tale. He’s an American gambler down on his luck in Argentina who’s befriended by casino owner Ballin Mundson, becoming the latter’s right hand man. When Ballin returns from a trip with a new bride, Gilda, we know right off the bat there’s a history between the two. The sexual tension between Johnny and Gilda is so thick you could slice it with Ballin’s unique sword-cane, a weapon that becomes important to the denoument of the story.

Johnny’s job description now includes keeping close watch on Gilda, not an easy task as she flirts and frolics with every man she sets her sights on. Johnny and Gilda have an unhealthy love/hate relationship, spitting lines at each other with unbridled vitriol (Gilda to Johnny: “I hate you so much I would destroy myself to take you down with me”). Ballin’s involvement in a shady tungsten cartel results in murder, and he fakes his own death in a plane crash, but not before catching the locked in an embrace in his own bedroom.

After he’s declared dead, Ballin’s estate leaves everything to Gilda, with Johnny as the executor. Johnny takes over the cartel and marries Gilda, making her a canary in a cage out of spite. She runs away to Montevideo, but Johnny cleaverly retrieves her before she can file for divorce. The cartel is dismantled by the police, and Gilda and Johnny meet in an empty casino. She’s about to leave for America, and Johnny pleads to go with her, his defenses finally broken. Then Mundson returns from his watery grave, brandishing his sword-cane and demanding, “I want my wife back”…

Hayworth and Ford made five films together, beginning early in their careers with 1940’s THE LADY IN QUESTION, and continuing with THE LOVES OF CARMEN (’48), AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (’52), and THE MONEY TRAP (’65), but GILDA outshines them all. Their onscreen chemistry probably had something to do with their decades-long on-and-off love affair, and it shows in the eyes of both stars. Standing out in support is suave George Macready as Ballin, one of the most elegant villains this side of George Sanders. Joseph Calleia has a pivotal part as Detective Obergon, always standing on the movie’s fringes until the ending. Also worth noting is Steven Geray as Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant loyal to Gilda and contemptuous of Johnny, calling him a “peasant”. Familiar Faces standing in the shadows are Joe Sawyer , Gerald Mohr, Symona Boniface, Eduardo Cianelli , Ludwig Donath, Bess Flowers (naturally!), John Tyrell , and Phillip Van Zandt.

Marion Parsonnett‘s biting, sophisticated script (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) surprisingly made it through the censors, given the era. Vidor’s direction is enhanced by Rudolph Mate’s brooding chiaroscuro photography. The costumes for Rita designed by Jean Louis make Rita luscious even in black and white, especially in the musical numbers “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amore Mio”, a two-piece outfit showing off her slinky hip-wiggle. GILDA is an indisputable classic of film noir and highlights Rita Hayworth at the peak of her movie-star power. What more could you ask for… go watch it!

That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)

I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that moves the film forward at a dizzying speed. There’s an amphibious assault on the syndicate’s compound where the bodies pile up and the gangsters are force-fed soul food! You can’t have a 70’s flick without the obligatory sex scene, and Williamson engages in a sensuous tryst with the angelic Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery, later an Oscar nom for THE COLOR PURPLE). A moody scene highlighting 42nd Street in its sleazy 70’s heyday (there’s even a movie poster for Klaus Kinski’s ’71 giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL!) finds the traitorous Zach (Tony King) murdering Tommy’s ex Helen (Gloria Hendry) in a dark alley. Tommy chases Zach from New York to LA in an improbable scene that winds up in a Los Angeles airport. Tommy’s final acts of retribution include slamming a beach umbrella through the sunning torso of Mafia chief Joe Frankfurter, and other gruesome highlights!

HELL UP IN HARLEM has a massive body count, crazy cartoonish violence, tough banter, and even some brief  kung-fu action thrown in for good measure! Former NFL/AFL star Williamson was one of the genre’s most charismatic stars, looking sharp in those totally outrageous 70’s outfits, and runs through the film like an All-Pro defensive back (which he was!). Julius Harris steals the show as Tommy’s Big Papa, adding to his list of colorful characterizations in films like SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, and LIVE AND LET DIE. He even gets his own theme song, the funky “Big Papa”:

The funk/jazz score by Fonce Mizell (who co-wrote many of the Jackson 5’s hits) and Freddie Perren (the disco anthem “I Will Survive”) features the gruff vocal talents of Motown’s Edwin Starr, whose hits included “Agent Double-O Soul”, “Twenty Five Miles”, and the classic track “War”, later covered by Bruce Springsteen. HELL UP IN HARLEM was obviously a rush job to capitalize on the success of BLACK CAESAR, but Larry Cohen doesn’t fail to disappoint his audience, cramming in action scene after action scene. It’s sexy and violent and complete nonsense, but somehow Cohen and his cast make it work on a shoestring budget and a warped sense of humor.

Now enjoy Edwin Starr lip-synching “War”, along with the funky gyrations of the SOUL TRAIN dancers: