The Naked Muse

Sculptor Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne) creates a work of art inspired by his model Lily Czepanek (Marlene Dietrich) in The Song of Songs (1933), a Pre-Code drama.

Here’s a rarely seen Pre-Code curiosity made during the early period of Marlene Dietrich’s career at Paramount, The Song of Songs (1933). It is usually overlooked amid the Josef von Sternberg collaborations that made her famous such as The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), yet, it provides a fascinating look at Dietrich under a different director (Rouben Mamoulian) as well as a departure from her usual persona as a vamp or prostitute (at least in the beginning). The film is also generously seasoned with romance, decadence, melodrama, earthy humor, some musical numbers and a disaster – there is a fire in the final act.

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Don’t Act Cool, Just Be Cool

The Japanese film poster for A Certain Killer (1967) aka Aru Koroshi Ya starring Raizo Ichikawa.

The yakuza thriller has been a prominent genre in Japanese cinema since the silent era when soon to be celebrated directors like Yasujiro Ozu dabbled in gangster melodramas like Walk Cheerfully (1930) and Dragnet Girl (1933). Once conceived as B-movies with low-budgets and rushed production schedules, the yakuza film graduated to A-picture productions in the 1970s but the genre really hit its stride in the 1960s with such stellar examples as Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964), Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter (1966) and his more wildly stylized follow-up, Branded to Kill (1967). Still, there are so many superb yakuza films from this period waiting to be discovered by American audiences and one of my favorites is A Certain Killer (1967, Japanese title: Aru Koroshi Ya) from director Kazuo Mori.

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SoCal Culture Bashing

An immensely talented playwright, screenwriter, and satirist, George Axelrod has rarely received the recognition he deserves within the Hollywood industry yet he was the man behind some of the wittiest screenplays of the fifties and early sixties. Foremost among them are two of Marilyn Monroe’s best films (The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Bus Stop, 1956), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn in her signature role, and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a highly paranoid thriller about a political conspiracy which prefigured President Kennedy’s assassination by a year. Less well known but equally audacious is his go-for-broke directorial debut, Lord Love a Duck (1966), a wicked lampoon of the movie business that nourished him and a satire of Southern California culture with its drive-in chapels, fast food restaurants, and self-improvement seminars.

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Woody’s Benediction

His name was Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode and he was a football star, a professional wrestler, a WWII veteran and a famous Hollywood character actor who should have become a star. But the closest Woody Strode ever got to playing the leading role in an American film was Sergeant Rutledge (1960), in which he portrayed the title character but was fourth billed after Jeffrey Hunter, Constance Tower and Billie Burke. In an ironic twist that makes sense in a Pre-Civil Rights Hollywood, Strode had to travel to Italy to finally receive top billing and the only genuine leading role of his career in Black Jesus (1968) aka Seated at his Right (the Italian title is Seduto alla sua Destra). It is probably one of his least known films but easily his biggest role and possibly his best performance.      

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A Quarantine Calamity in the Making

The Covid-19 epidemic of 2020 will always be remembered as the medical crisis that abruptly changed daily life for everyone in the 21st century. It also sparked a renewed interest in movies dealing with deadly pandemics. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) starring Matt Damon and Outbreak (1995) with Dustin Hoffman were both box office successes during their initial releases but they suddenly began trending as highly popular titles again on streaming services everywhere. Terry Gilliam’s Oscar-nominated 12 Monkeys (1995) and The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on Michael Crichton’s novel, were also attracting first time and repeat viewers while other, equally worthy movies in the same genre have been forgotten or overlooked. One of these is 80,000 Suspects (1963), a compelling thriller from Val Guest, an often underrated British director.  

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Elmer Gantry’s Little Sister

Salome Jens (center) plays a mute girl who regains her voice and becomes a faith healer in the 1961 drama, Angel Baby, directed by Paul Wendkos.

After the critical and box office success of Elmer Gantry in 1960, another film, much smaller in scale and budget, came along that mirrored the latter film both thematically and in some of the plot details. It might have been merely a coincidence that Angel Baby (1961) appeared shortly after the release of Elmer Gantry, but it certainly beats the Burt Lancaster Oscar winner when it comes to oddball casting and camp value.   

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Something is Rotten in Romania

If you are an avid follower of world news, you might remember a tragic event that occurred in Bucherest, Romania in October 2015 and became an international cause célèbre. A deadly fire broke out in the Colectiv nightclub, killing 27 people and injuring up to 180 others. The club, a converted former factory, was a literal death trap with no fire exits and only one door that was functioning at the time. The other door had to be broken down by panicking clubgoers in order to escape. What happened to at least 37 survivors of the fire was even worse. They died, not from severe burns, but from bacterial infections that could easily have been prevented if the burn centers hadn’t been staffed by inept health care workers, had the appropriate medical equipment to treat the cases and, most importantly, had used a potent disinfectant to prevent the spread of life-threatening bacteria. Alexander Nanau’s documentary Collective takes this tragedy as his starting point but soon uncovers a perfect storm scenario that reveals the terrible truth behind Romania’s health care system and it all adds up to widespread government corruption. 

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