When Steven Spielberg’s 1941 opened in December 1979, it was mostly savaged by the critics though a few rose to its defense like Pauline Kael who wrote, “…the film overall is an amazing, orgiastic comedy, with the pop culture of an era compacted into a day and a night. There are such surprising slapstick payoffs that the film’s commercial failure in this country didn’t make much sense.” When I caught up with 1941 in a repertory screening in 1982, I had to concur with Kael that Spielberg’s comic epic was unfairly maligned and great fun if you just go with the chaotic flow of it. Continue reading
Imagine a science-fiction influenced spy thriller about humanoid assassins directed by Jess Franco with a screenplay adaptation by Jean-Claude Carrière (a frequent collaborator with Luis Bunuel), a cool jazz score by Paul Misraki (Alphaville, Le Doulos, Les Cousins) and an international cast featuring Eddie Constantine, Fernando Rey and Francoise Brion. It sounds like a film buff’s fever dream but it actually exists. Released in 1966 during the height of the James Bond craze, Cartes sur table aka Attack of the Robots is a stylish and amusing entertainment that takes a standard world domination-by-madman scenario and infuses it with a cheeky sense of humor. The film will come as a surprise to those who only associate Jess Franco with Eurotrash favorites like 99 Women (1969), Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Wanda, the Wicked Warden (1977).
In 1956 directed Robert Aldrich surprised everyone by trying his hand at a “woman’s picture,” a melodramatic soap opera that on the surface appeared to be a complete departure from his previous work which included two westerns (Apache, Vera Cruz), a film noir (Kiss Me Deadly) and a drama (The Big Knife), whose emotional volatility equals the physical violence in the three preceding films. Continue reading
L’insoumis (1964) aka The Unvanquished is a relatively unknown but deeply compelling and haunting French film from director Alain Cavalier that aired several years ago on TCM in an English language version titled Have I the Right to Kill? (It was originally distributed by MGM in the U.S.) Shot in glorious black and white by master cinematographer Claude Renoir, the film plays like a politically-charged film noir and it could easily be the best of Alain Delon’s early performances. In the other key role, Lea Massari, the beautiful Italian actress who is best known as the warm, charismatic mother in Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), has rarely been more appealing. Continue reading
In the annals of forgotten inventors, unsung geniuses and visionaries who have fallen through the cracks of time, William Friese-Greene should be near the top of the list. Even though his gravestone bears the inscription, “The Inventor of Kinematography,” his reputation as an early film pioneer is still challenged by some movie scholars while others believe he was a victim of bad luck and deserved the credit and fame that others like Thomas Edison enjoy today. The Magic Box (1951), directed by John Boulting, favors the latter view and was one of the most prestigious productions of its year. It was produced exclusively for the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition that opened in London in May 1951 and marked the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Continue reading
If U.S. moviegoers are familiar with the name Tinto Brass at all, it is probably due to the infamous 1979 epic Caligula which featured world renowned actors (Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, Malcolm McDowell, etc.) and hardcore sex scenes (which were later added by producer/Penthouse tycoon Bob Guccione against the wishes of Brass who disowned the film). Brass had already established himself as a master of art house erotica/perversity with 1976’s Salon Kitty about a brothel in WWII Berlin where the prostitutes were undercover spies. But after Caligula, Brass seemed much happier directing more modestly budgeted, softcore adaptations of literary works like The Key (1983, based on the novel by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki) and Paprika (1991, inspired by the novel Fanny Hill), which showcased his increasing obsession with shapely female bottoms.
In retrospect, his early career is a contemplation of the paths not taken: documentary (Ca ira, il fiume della rivolta aka Thermidor, 1964), avant-garde cinema (L’urlo aka The Howl, 1970) and eccentric genre offerings such as Col cuore in gola aka Deadly Sweet, 1967). Of the latter, Yankee (1966), the only spaghetti western ever directed by Brass, is definitely worth a look. Continue reading
One of several Pre-Code dramas helmed by Warner Bros. contract director Archie Mayo in 1931, Under Eighteen is a cautionary tale for the working girl that was lost in the shuffle of too many similar programmers released that same year. Seen today, it provides a unique window into the past when studios like Warner Bros. catered to Depression Era-audiences, particularly women, with movie plots that mirrored situations and circumstances in the lives of their audience. Continue reading