The American Dream Gone Wrong

Hungarian immigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) contemplates what his life might have been like if he hadn’t been the victim of unfortunate circumstances in THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1941).

Films about the immigrant experience in the United States often run the gamut from comedy (Coming to America, Moscow on the Hudson) to historical depictions (Hester Street, The New Land) to autobiographical dramas (Elia Kazan’s America, America) and even horror films such as Netflix’s 2021 thriller, No One Gets Out Alive. Still, one of my favorite movies about a foreigner’s adventures on these shores is The Face Behind the Mask (1941), which stars Peter Lorre as an Eastern European refugee looking to start a new life in New York City.

Continue reading

Art Direction by Antonio Gaudi

La Sagrada Familia, the iconic masterpiece by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, is still a work in progress after more than a century.

Anyone who has seen a few movies filmed in Barcelona, Spain, has undoubtedly caught a glimpse or maybe even a close-up of one of the architectural wonders created by Antoni (aka Antonio) Gaudi or one of his contemporaries such as Lluis Domenech I Montaner or Josep Puig I Cadafalch in the “Modernisme” movement of 1888-1911. This brief period resulted in awe-inspiring buildings and structures with designs based on organic forms or taken directly from nature – beehives, mushrooms, stalactites – that broke away from conventional design and accented curves and rich ornamentation (broken pieces of colorful ceramic tile worked into wall mosaics). This unique architectural style is an art director’s dream and a natural for the screen, which is why it has been the co-star in countless movies filmed in Barcelona such as Susan Seidelman’s Gaudi Afternoon (2001) and L’Auberge espagnole (2002), in which Gaudi’s still-in-progress La Sagrada Familia (it was started in 1883) is prominently featured.

Continue reading

Under Surveillance

Raphael (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a secret operative who is monitoring the daily life of a suspected Nazi war criminal in UN HOMME A ABATTRE (A Man to Kill, 1967).

We will probably never know the exact number of Nazi war criminals who escaped from Germany in the aftermath of WW2 and made their way to South America but some of the more infamous ones are Adolf Eichmann, who was later captured in Buenos Aires, brought to trial in Israel and executed in 1962, and Josef Schwammberger, who was arrested in Argentina and returned to West Germany for a trial in 1992 (he was sentenced to life in prison and died there). At the same time, there have been reports that as many as 9,000 Nazi officers and collaborators found a safe haven in countries like Brazil and Paraguay under new identities and were never arrested for their war crimes. This unsettling realization inspires the narrative of Philippe Condroyer’s A Man to Kill (French title: Un Homme a abattre, 1967), a fictional espionage thriller that focuses on a suspected concentration camp officer who resurfaces in Barcelona years later as a low profile German architect.

Continue reading

Imaginary Lover

For better or worse, the 1960s was a time when commercial and experimental cinema occasionally collided, producing innovative, financially successful films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), but more often high profile failures such as Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) and the unfortunate 1969 screen adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. In Search of Gregory (1969), which was designed as a star vehicle for Julie Christie by producer Joseph Janni and followed her critically acclaimed performance in Petulia (1968), falls into the latter category. 

Continue reading

Once Upon a Time in Russia

“Hordes storm fortress!” “Tartars Abduct Viking beauty!” “Orgy celebrates conquest!” These were some of the tag lines used to promote the period epic The Tartars (1961), one of many European imports that reached American shores during a brief “sword and sandal” craze in the late fifties/early sixties. Hercules, the 1959 peplum sensation starring Steve Reeves, started it all. Producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and distributed it in the U.S. in 1959, transforming it into a box office hit. After that, every major studio was scrambling to duplicate that success and MGM was no exception, importing such muscle-bound contenders as The Giant of Marathon (1960), Morgan the Pirate (1961) and The Son of Spartacus (aka The Slave, 1963) – all of them starring Steve Reeves. The Tartars, however, had a different pedigree and a more distinctive one. Not only was it helmed by Richard Thorpe, one of MGM’s most dependable directors of costume epics (Ivanhoe (1952), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), Knights of the Round Table, 1953), but it sported two high profile marquee names – Victor Mature and Orson Welles.  

Continue reading

Guilty Bystanders

The Japanese film poster for Mikkai aka THE ASSIGNATION (1959), directed by Ko Nakahira.

A young couple are enjoying a romantic rendezvous in a hidden grove at a city park at twilight. It turns out to be an illicit affair. The woman is the married wife of a law professor and her lover is one of his students. Their privacy is interrupted by the arrival of a speeding taxi that crashes into an embankment nearby. Inside the driver is seen struggling with the backseat occupant. It ends badly with the driver murdered and his body dragged into the bushes. The killer flees and the young couple are faced with a dilemma. Should they go to the police and risk exposing their affair or remain silent? This is the pressing issue that drives the narrative of The Assignation (Japanese title: Mikkai, 1959), directed by Ko Nakahira. 

Continue reading

Class Clowns

College life and the behavior of students and facility alike has been a source of inspiration for countless satires and parodies on the subject from the silent era (Harold Lloyd in The Freshman [1925], Buster Keaton in College [1927]) and early sound period (Laurel & Hardy in A Chump at Oxford [1939]) on up to more contemporary examples such as National Lampoon’s Animal House [1978], Van Wilder [2002] and Accepted [2006]. Certainly one of the funniest and most memorable of all is Horse Feathers (1932), a madcap burlesque of university life starring The Marx Brothers in which the institution of higher education is held up for ridicule and satirized mercilessly.  

Continue reading

Udo Kier’s First Feature Film

Udo Kier plays a rising gang leader in the bleak 1968 crime expose SHAMELESS (German title: Schamlos).

Long before Udo Kier became the go-to eclectic supporting actor who stole his scenes in films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), the sci-fi fantasy Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (1997) and numerous films by Lars von Trier, the German actor was already firmed established as a cult film icon from the 1970s. In addition to playing the lead in two Andy Warhol productions, Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), he starred in the sadistic period piece The Mark of the Devil (1970), Just Jaeckin’s S&M erotica The Story of O (1975), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and R.W. Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979). Kier, who was born in 1944, is still going strong today at age 78 with more than 250 film and TV series in his filmography and a rare leading role in Swan Song (2021), in which he plays a retired hairdresser who agrees to perform one last makeover on a deceased client. But if you want to see him at the beginning of his career, look no further than his debut feature film Shameless (German title, Schamlos, 1968), in which he plays a ruthless young gangster who tries to muscle in on his rival’s business operations in Vienna, Austria.

Udo Kier has a rare starring role in the bittersweet comedy-drama SWAN SONG (2021).
Continue reading