vrijdag 31 juli 2015

Police Python 357 (1976)


Dir: Alain Corneau - Cast: Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Stefania Sandrelli, François Périer, Mathieu Carrière, Serge Marquand, Vadim Glowna

The movie’s title (a reference to the weapon used by Montand, a Colt Python 357) could suggest that this is just another Dirty Harry clone, and yes there are a few similarities, but this is definitely another type of movie. It's not an action movie (in spite of a brutally violent finale) but rather a suspense yarn playing with genre conventions. One of the conventions of the suspense genre is that we do NOT know what’s going on until the detective of service reveals us the identity of the killer. In Police Python we know more than any of the characters involved, including the police inspector investigating the case: we know what’s going on and who was responsible for what. But this doesn't hurt the suspense. Quite on the contrary: the movie is edge-of-your-seat material from beginning to end.

Montand is Marc Ferret, a stubborn, wayward police inspector in the residential town of Orléans, South of Paris, whose only real friend is his gun. His whole life is put upside-down when he falls in love with a young photographer, Sylvia (played by Stefania Sandrelli), who secretly took his picture during a nocturnal arrest. But then she is killed and when Ferret is put on the case, he discovers that all clues point in his direction. Ferret assumes there must have been another man, presumably another lover, who knew about him and is now using him as a patsy. We know from the beginning that this second man is Ferret’s only ‘friend’ within the force, super-intendant Ganay, who killed Sylvia when he discovered she wanted to leave him. Ganay wanted to give himself in, but was talked over by his bed-ridden wife, who knew about the affair (she is marvelously played by Simone Signoret, in real life Montand’s spouse!)

According to Clark Hodgkiss, who reviewed police Python 357 for showdown on mainstreet, the movie is based on a 1946 novel by Kenneth Fearing, The Big Clock. The novel was adapted to the screen in 1948 (under the same title) by John Farrow and remade (more or less) in 1987 by Roger Donaldson as No Way Out. I have never read the novel, nor have I ever watched the 1948 movie, but I watched No way Out a while ago, when it was on TV. Donaldson’s movie is a competent thriller, but the only thing it has in common with this classic French movie, is the premise of a cat chasing his own tail. Apart from being a suspense yarn, Police Python 357 is an incisive psychological study in loneliness and the way the tension is built up, is far superior to the superficial thriller effects Donaldson used in his version.

Of course the premise of a man caught in a labyrinth plot brings Kafka to mind but there are also similarities to the novels of Patricia Highsmith (who was discovered by French critics in the 70s). Like the protagonists in many of Highsmith’s novels, Ferret is like a fly ensnared in a spider’s web, trying to free itself from the sticky threads, only making its deplorable position worse by every move. The ending is downbeat and gruesome: this is not a Hollywood movie, so don’t expect a happy ending. Not surprisingly there are also similarities to the works of master film makers such as Jean-Pierre Melville (notably Le Samourai and Le Cerle Rouge) and Claude Chabrol. In the 70s Corneau was often called one of the most talented young directors of French cinema, an heir to both Melville and Chabrol, but he never managed to live up to the expectations and eventually his work fell into oblivion. In the case of Police Python 357 this is a pity. This is superior film making.

maandag 29 juni 2015

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)


Director: Alan Gibson - Christopher Lee (Count Dracula), Peter Cushing (Van Helsing), Joanna Lumley (Jessica Van Helsing), Michael Coles (Inspector Murray), William Franklyn (Peter Torrence), Barbara Yu Ling (Chin Yang), Freddie Jones (Dr. Julian Keeley), Valerie Van Ost (Jane)

Dracula’s Sunset would have been an appropriate title as well. In 1973, the adventures of the Evil Count were definitely coming to an end - at least as far as the famous British Hammer House of Horror was concerned. There was one Hammer Dracula to follow, but it would be a crossover movie with Shaw Brothers, so this is the logical conclusion of the series that spanned a decade and a half (1958-1973).

Like its predecessor, Dracula AD 72, Satanic Rites is set in modern day London. In his Last Hurrah, Dracula has become a scheming villain: He has built a business tower above an ancient crypt and has persuaded four prominent members of society into performing satanic rites on the eve of “The Sabbath of the Undead”. The four think they will be part of a new world order, but the vampire’s objective is the destruction of mankind, with the exception of his ‘bride’: Dr. Helsing’s grand daughter. He himself and Jessica van Helsing will be the sole survivors of the sabbath and therefore inherit heaven, earth and hell.

It’s of course a bit of silly premise: No human life means no virginal blood, so how will a creature like Dracula ever live in a totally deserted place? There’s of course still his bride, but you can’t expect her to remain a virgin until eternity and once bitten, she will need virginal blood herself. Oddly enough, the question is raised in his presence and Dracula seems startled for a second (probably for the first time in his existence), but only for a second. This creature has literally become the evil incarnate, it has become so determined that he’s no longer interested in his own survival, only in the annihilation of others. Or maybe the screenwriters just didn't know how to solve the problem.

Some think this is the better of the two contemporary Draculas, but I’m not sure. Satanic Rites has more ‘story’ than Dracula AD 72, but Lee and Cushing almost become supporting characters in the intricate, often confusing script and for about an hour the film doesn’t really feel like a Dracula movie at all. It is saved by a good finale (Lee and Cushing doing what they’re good at) and the presence of a young Joanna Lumley, looking absolutely fabulous - if you know what I mean - as Cushing’s grand daughter Jessica.

Dracula putting his own chances of survival in jeopardy is not the only logical fallacy, in fact the script is marked by several particularly stupid ideas. In the previous movie we learned that vampires are afraid of water (as a symbol of purity) and now we’re supposed to accept that Dracula has a sprinkler set installed in his basement (Van Helsing uses it to wipe out his harem of seductive vampirellas). Of course the whole idea of the prince of darkness and his bloodsucking adventures is fantasy, but even fantasy worlds need some kind of inner logic. Luckily there are also some novelties that work quite well; the best idea is provided by a scene of Dracula being entangled in a hawthorn bush. We’re told that a hawthorn bush is a symbol of good as it provided Christ with his crown of thorns. Neat idea.

woensdag 24 juni 2015

The Chase (1966)

Director: Arthur Penn - Cast: Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson, Janice Rule, Robert Duvall

I had watched this movie only once, decades ago, and actually re-watched it because some people told me it was a failure. With a man like Arthur Penn in the directional chair and a stellar cast including Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Duvall, Angie Dickenson and Robert Redford, you don’t expect a movie to be a failure.

The screenplay for The Chase was based a novel (and a play) by Horton Foote, an author I'm not familar with. Reportedly screenwriter Lilian Hellman only used a couple of sparse elements from Foote’s original writings (1). Several directors had turned the offer down to direct the movie, among them Elia Kazan and Fred Zinneman (2). The original plot centered on a escaped convict seeking revenge on the sheriff who had brought him up; the movie is still about an escaped convict (Robert Redford) and a sheriff (Marlon Brando), but their relationship is decidedly different. Redford is falsely accused of murder (the murder is committed by a fellow inmate who escaped at the same time) and his return to his hometown causes a lot of agitation among the townspeople, who want to take the law into their own hands. The escapee and the sheriff are rather friends than foes in this version of the story. Instead of defending himself against a man who wants to kill him, the sheriff is defending a man who is in danger of being killed by others.

I must have seen The Chase in the Seventies and my memories of it were rather vague and dispersed. If somebody had asked me in which year the movie was made, I would have guessed it was from the late Fifties or early Sixties, when these type of dramas were en vogue. In reality it was made in 1966, only one year before Bonnie & Clyde, the ground-breaking movie that catapulted director Penn to the top and would eventually bring him everlasting fame. The Chase tries very hard to create a brooding Southern atmosphere of racism, debauchery and vigilantism (all sauced with pseudo-marxist ideas about class) but at best the drama feels like second rate William Faulkner or Eugene O’Neill, with too many characters all begging for our attention and over-explicative dialogue. It’s also way overlong, and when things finally pick up (in the last thirty minutes) it’s almost too late.

Brando is largely okay here; he’s still speaking his lines, not mumbling them like he would do in some of his later performances, and apparently he provided Penn with some useful ideas during the filming of the infamous beating up scene. Brando proposed to ‘play it slow’ and speed it up, just a little, afterwards. It’s one of the scenes that do work in this otherwise disappointing movie. Janice Rule is a good overheated drunken swab (very sexy indeed), but Jane Fonda and Robert Duvall play strickly clichéd characters (and Duvall is already showing some of his familiar acting tics); actually it’s Robert Redford who turns in the movie’s best, most controlled performance as the man on the run.


* (1) See: http://variety.com/1965/film/reviews/the-chase-2-1200421014/
* (2) Jeff Stafford, The Chase, on: Turner Classic Movies

zondag 1 maart 2015

The Maze Runner (2014)


Dir: Wes Ball -  Cast: Dylan O'Brien (Thomas), Will Poulter (Gally), Kaya Scodelario (Teresa), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Newt), Patricia Clackson (Ava Paige), Ki Hong Lee (Minho), Aml Ameen (Alby), Blake Cooper (Chuck)

The umpteenth dystopian movie set in a post-apocalyptic world featuring young actors, but it’s a good one. The approach is darker and the atmosphere creepier than in most other juvenile book-to-movie adaptations in recent memory. With shades of Alien(s) and (the novel) Lord of the Flies this is as close to a horror movie as this new sub genre will ever get.

It’s the story about a young adult, Thomas, who arrives in a strange, railed-off world called the Glade, a grassy area surrounded by high walls. He doesn’t know who he is, nor where he comes from. It turns out that every month a boy of his age arrives in the Glade without having any specific recollections of the past. The Glade is surrounded by a gigantic maze which may (or may not) provide the only way out of the closed area. Every night two boys, called runners, are sent into the maze to find a way out, but their task seems hopeless: not only the maze is ‘protected’ by Griefers, horrible creatures, half beast, half machine, but the maze also changes its positions in daytime ...

The Maze Runner does not throw all its cards on the table immediately: we do not know what this strange world of the Glade & the Maze is supposed to be: is it a save place, a last resort in post-apocalyptic world, or are these young people used in a sort of Big Brother game? The Hunger Games, Divergent and Ender’s Game all opened with an exposition of the great apocalypse that had led to the actual situation. In The Maze Runner we only gradually learn what happened (and what’s going on), mainly through Thomas, who’s having memory flashes of experiments in which he was a doctor, not a victim ...

What also sets The Maze Runner apart, is the atmosphere of togetherness and solidarity in this secluded corner of the universe: these young people have created an almost perfect home for themselves, a world of tree huts, gardens, camp-fires, a safe place in the wilderness. This warm place is threatened by the arrival of two newcomers, first Thomas, a daredevil who ignores all rules and agreements, and then Teresa, the first girl to enter the Glade ... Thomas and Teresa quickly develop a string bond and their independent thoughts and behaviour provoke panic-reaction among those protecting the status quo, notably Gally, their chunky enforcer.

First time director Wes Ball has a history in visual effects and graphic design but doesn’t turn his movie into a maniacal special effects show; the Griefers are well-designed scary monsters, maybe a bit too fast for their own good (how could anybody ever run away from them?), but they’re not over-used. Both the Glade and the Maze are magnificent graphic realizations and there’s some great young acting talent at work here. The weakest part of the movie - almost ruining the experience - is a rather sudden, needlessly confusing finale that is in fact almost as confusing for us viewers as for the youngsters who have just found their way out of the maze. It also makes you wonder if the second part will be as fascinating as the first. According to the title - The Scorch Trails - the sequel will be set in a radically different surroundings. Is there a life outside the Maze? We’ll see.

Not just the umpteenth post-apocalyptic movie with young actors. Good acting and an interesting story-line turn this into one of the best of its kind so far, even if the finale is a bit of a letdown.

donderdag 26 februari 2015

Sky Riders (1976)


Dir: Douglas Hickox - Cast: James Coburn, Susannah York, Robert Culp, Charles Aznavour, Harry Andrews, John Beck, Zouzou, Werner Pochath, Antonys Antipas

Sky Riders is a straightforward action movie, good guys versus bad guys (with a few daredevils thrown in) with a good a cast and excellent stunt work. Moreover it was shot on truly magnificent locations. So what could have possibly gone wrong? Not too much actually, it’s quite entertaining, but it’s also one of those straightforward action movies which make you wonder who are more stupid: the villains or the heroes.

While staying in Greece, the wife and children of an American industrialist are kidnapped and taken to an abandoned monastery, situated on a high rock. The police have located them and surrounded the rock, but the stronghold is impregnable. Is it? Well, not to the woman’s ex-husband (and the father of one of her two children) who has a brainstorm when watching a flock of birds hovering over the impressive landscape ... He hires a few hang gliders who teach him how to fly - or rather glide - and becomes such good friends with these daredevils that they’re willing to join him in the attack on the stronghold.

The terrorists tell us that they’re opposed to imperialism and desire to give the power back to the people, but that’s all we learn about their motivations and plans. There are also a few (rather vague) references to the period of the Greek Military Junta (1967-1974), but this is most certainly not a political movie. So let’s get back to our initial question: who is more stupid, the bad guys for taking recluse in a place from which they won’t ever be able to escape - they should have studied the story of Masada, 73 AD (1) - or the good guys for attacking the stronghold in para-gliding style, turning themselves into flying rather than sitting ducks? But never mind, hang gliders performing their art against the background of the world famous Meteora Monasteries (2) are a true visual delight and James Coburn smiles and growls himself through  the movie, as hefty and cool as ever. You can’t help wondering: Is he really such a cool actor or just pretending to be one?

Roussanou Monastery
Apparently none of the hang gliders was hurt even though the stunt work looks quite dangerous, but the movie provoked an international incident when a Greek electrician was killed during an explosion.The film's executive producer Sandy Howard was imprisoned in Greece and according to some sources he had to bribe Greek officials so the crew member responsible would not be arrested by the Greek police (3).


* (1) Masada is an ancient fortification in Israel situated on top of a rock plateau on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, near the Dead Sea. In 70 AD, towards the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, a group of Jewish rebels fled to the fortification which was considered to be impregnable. But the Romans did not give up and in April 73 Masada fell. According to the historian Flavius Josephus all Jews comitted suicide when they realized the situation was hopeless.

* (2) The monastery in which the hostages are supposedly kept, is the Roussanou monastery, one of the six remaining Meteora monasteries.

* (3) Variety, Producer Sandy Howard dies at 81:
The article is wrong in mentioning the Greek Military regime in this context. The dictatorship of the Greek Colonels had ended on 24 July 1974 under the pressure of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the new government had been installed when Sky Riders was filmed.

Sky Riders can be watched (in widescreen and reasonably good image quality) on You Tube:

maandag 9 februari 2015

Audition (1999)


Dir: Takeshi Miiki - Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura, Miyuki Matsuda, Toshie Negishi,  Tetsu Sawaki, Shigeru Saiki, Ken Mitsuishi, Ren Ohsugi, Renji Ishibashi

 “Kiri kiri kiri”

Miiki’s international breakthrough movie is a truly disturbing piece of film making, a romantic drama that turns into a visceral horror movie. Audition tells the story of a shy, emotionally inhibited widower, Shigeharu, a middle-aged man who lives alone with his teenage son. He would like to start dating again but doesn’t know how to approach women. His friend, a not so successful film maker, offers him to arrange a fake audition for a film that will never be made. Shigeharu immediately feels attracted to one of the candidates, the fragile Asami. His friend signals to him that there must be something wrong with the girl, because her autobiographical stories don’t seem to match with reality, but Shigeharu refuses to give her up, walking like a lamb to the slaughter ...

The first ninety minutes of the movie are austere, subdued, almost glacial, with only a couple of sparse suggestive moments indicating the horrifying turn the events will eventually take (I won't say anything about the girl's motivation because it would harm the fascination of the narrative). The horror is limited to the final twenty minutes of the movie and note that even in those twenty minutes, Audition remains more suggestive than exploitative: the physical torture is only shown during a couple of seconds, the camera keeps lingering on the girl’s face most of the time, showing her enjoyment, accentuated by this hypnotic line she keeps repeating:

“Kiri kiri kiri”

Some call this Miiki’s best movie. I tend to agree, but of his immense body of work (he’s one of the most prolific film makers in history) this is not the easiest one to enjoy. Some will no doubt think that the story-telling is too drawn-out while other will find the horror repulsive. But the atmosphere is great and Miiki is immensily helped by two magnificent performances. Ryo Ishibashi is very good as the emotionally inhibited widower and Eihi Shiina is truly sensational as Asami. And you’ll never forget those sparse moments of visceral violence, even if you try: they’re so intense that few people can watch them without closing their eyes in abhorrence.

You’ve been warned.


* (1) Since his debut in 1961, Miiki directed more than 90 productions; he’s active in cinema, theatre and the video circuit and his work ranges from excessive (the blood-spattered Ichi the Killer) and experimental (the yakuza epic Dead or Alive, partly shot in video clip style) to family friendly (the children's movie Zebraman).

zaterdag 24 januari 2015

Brannigan (1975)

BRANNIGAN (1975, Douglas Hickox) 

John Wayne, Richard Attenborough, John Vernon, Mel Ferrer, Judy Geeson, Ralph Meeker, Daniel Pilon, John Stride, Lesley Anne Down 

By the mid Seventies the cop movie had almost entirely elbowed out the western, so everybody was making movies about tough renegade cops, capitalizing on the popularity of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies. John Wayne was no exception. If McQ (1974) had been a fairly standard Dirty Harry clone, Brannigan is more closely modeled after Coogan’s Bluff, the Clint Eastwood-Don Siegel collaboration that had served as a traditional movie for Eastwood’s career: it had transferred the man with no name from the dusty western towns to the urban jungle of the modern metropolis (1).

Like Coogan’s Bluff, Brannigan is western disguised as a cop movie. Or rather a cop movie with a western heart. After all anything starring John Wayne has a western lurking beneath the surface. Big John is Big Jim Brannigan, a no-nonsense Chicago detective sent to London to extradite an American gangster, Ben Larkin (John Vernon). Larkin is out on bail and before Brannigan can collect him, the gangster is kidnapped for ransom by a couple of local thugs. Brannigan will now have to cooperate with the British police forces to ‘save’ the gangster’s life. In the meantime a professional killer from New Orleans, ordered by Larkin to eliminate Brannigan, has also arrived in London.

The movie is leisurely paced but the intricate script (co-written by Dalton Trumbo’s son Christopher) keeps things moving; the story element of the kidnapping adds some flair to the familiar fish-out-of-the-water plot. The action scenes are well-executed, notably a car chase through central London with the Duke crash-landing after jumping his car over a half-raised Tower Bridge. Of course we also get a lot of verbal sparrings between the tough cop from Chicago and his sophisticated colleague from Scotland Yard (Richard Attenbrough in fine form), plus a traditional barroom brawl, for the occasion set in British pub and played for laugh.

Brannigan is routine but the change of location and the tongue-in-cheek approach by director Hickox do the Duke well. He wasn’t getting any younger, but obviously driving a car - even on the wrong side of the street - was physically less demanding at this point of his career than riding a horse. Overall this is one of his more enjoyable movies from the Seventies, easygoing, a bit sluggish in spots, but never boring. They should have done a bit more with the character played by Judy Geeson, the female cop who’s supposed to show Brannigan around in London. Originally the role was meant for Vanessa Redgrave and she was supposed to play a much stronger character, but the producers feared that the actors’ conflicting political views might lead to problems on the set.


* (1) You can read my review of COOGAN'S BLUFF here: http://www.furiouscinema.com/2012/08/coogans-bluff-fifty-furious-westerns-series/

zondag 18 januari 2015

The Party (1968)

THE PARTY (1968, Blake Edwards) 

Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Marge Champion, Al Checco, Corinne Cole, Dick Crockett, Frances Davis, Danielle De Metz, Herb Ellis, Paul Ferrara, Steve Franken

A cult classic by the director and star actor of the Pink Panther movies. It was virtually shot without a script to create maximum headroom for Sellers' famous improvisations.

Once again Sellers is a foreigner, but this time he’s not Inspector Clouseau, the clumsy police detective from France, but a bit player from India called Hrundo V. Bakshi, probably the worst actor in the world. He was engaged to play a bit part in a Gunga Din like production, but has ruined this chance of a lifetime by literally blowing up the set. The producer wants to make sure that this idiot will never work in Hollywood again, but due to a misunderstanding, Bakshi is invited for a Hollywood jet set party. Of course the over-polite but extremely clumsy Bakshi has no trouble to do to the party what he did to the movie; from the moment he arrives, everything goes wrong, with increasingly devastating results ...

With the exception of the pre-credit sequence, the film was entirely shot on one gigantic studio set representing a state-of-the art mansion equipped with electronically controlled gimmicks (a floor opening to a swimming pool, retractable bars, a fake garden with imitation garden plants and imitation garden trees, etc). The idea was inspired by the sets created by French comedy genius Jacques Tati for his movie Play Time (1967); Tati was a personal favorite of both Edwards and Sellers and many of the jokes involving inanimate objects and technological devices are modeled after similar jokes in Tati’s movies featuring Monsieur Hulot, notably Mon Oncle (1958). Sellers and Edwards used the video assist system (introduced to film making by Jerry Lewis in The Bell Boy) to adjust the timing of the jokes.

Compared to Tati, whose movies are funny, poetic and philosophical contemplations about modern life, the comedy of The Party may seem rather superficial, but Sellers is in top form, it’s really his show, his movie. Steve Franken is also quite funny as the increasingly inebriated butler. Because of the improvisations, some of the very best scenes are almost ‘silent’, such as the classic toilet scene. Unfortunately the momentum isn’t sustained until the very end; the insanity escalades in the last twenty minutes, with lots of foam and even a baby elephant, but for more than an hour, this is a lovely, often delicately funny comedy.


* (1) Jerry Lewis is generally credited for inventing a prototype of the VA-system. Scenes were shot simultanuously on film and videotape, which allowed Lewis to check te results of a shot scene immediately and check his timing. Jerry Lewis at work with the video assist system: http://www.jerrylewiscomedy.com/creation_video.htm
For an elaborate description of the video assist system and the use of it by Jerry Lewis and Sellers/Edwards, see: http://web.archive.org/web/20110726164337/http://www.iatse812.org/downloadfiles/Video%20Assist/On%20Set%20With%20Video%20Assist.pdf