On the Road with Robert Kramer

Route One is a historic American highway with a rich history spanning three centuries. It starts in Key West, Florida and ends in Fort Kent, Maine and some of the cities along the way include Miami, Washington, New York City and Boston. Filmmaker Robert Kramer decided to travel the entire route in 1988 with his friend Paul McIsaac and make a film about the journey. Part of his intent was to explore and document the lives and mind set of the people he met along the way but also to come to terms with his own feelings about America after living abroad for almost a decade. The completed film, Route One USA (1989), is a fascinating mosaic of American culture and much more than just a time capsule since it reveals the roots of the polarization and fragmentation that is affecting our country today.   Continue reading

Balm for the Soul

The Japanese poster for The Burmese Harp (1956)

In 1955 Kon Ichikawa was a well established filmmaker in Japan who was mostly known for satiric comedies like Mr. Pu (1953) and A Billionaire (1954) and the occasional literary adaptation like Young People (1952). His work was still unknown outside of his own country but that would change with his 27th film, The Burmese Harp (Japanese title: Biruma no tategoto, 1956). It would prove to be his first major critical and box office success in Japan but also one that would bring him international acclaim. “That was the first film I really felt I had to make,” Ichikawa later admitted to author and film scholar Donald Richie.   Continue reading

Down the Noir Highway

What could make a reputable insurance instigator go bad? A beautiful woman? Lots of loot? A sense of empowerment? For Joe Peters (Charles McGraw), it’s all of these things but it’s definitely a femme fatale named Diane (Joan Dixon) who first ignites the copper’s lust and then his greed. Roadblock (1951) is a cleverly plotted, terse little film noir that has more twists and hairpin turns than a winding mountain road. What makes it stand out from other low-budget noirs produced at RKO is Charles McGraw’s compelling performance as an easily seduced sucker unlike his usual tough guy roles and Joan Dixon’s sultry presence.  Continue reading

Toxic Love

Giuliano Gemma and Stefania Sandrelli play factory workers in Milan who become lovers in the tragic love story, Delitto D’amore (aka Crime of Love, 1974), directed by Luigi Comencini.

Milan, Italy is world famous as a mecca for high fashion, design and the AC Milan football club but the statistics also reveal that it is still one of Europe’s most polluted cities due to smoke spewing factories and auto emissions. Against this gray, industrial backdrop, Luigi Comencini has set his rarely seen but moving 1974 drama, Delitto D’amore (aka Crime of Love).    Continue reading

The Burden of Brilliance

Who was Nikola Tesla? Some people know him as the scientific genius who created the alternating current (AC) electrical system which became the industry standard instead of Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) electrical system. Tesla is also credited with developing the first X-ray films known as shadowgraphs, inventing the Tesla coil which became the basis of modern radio technology, designing the first neon sign and holding the patents for more than 250 inventions which have improved the quality of human life. Such brilliance comes with a price and the Croatian-born immigrant was also an eccentric with no talent for profitable self-promotion or successful business ventures which often affected his career adversely. Sounds like a fascinating subject for a film, right? Director/screenwriter Michael Almereyda thought so too and his 2020 movie Tesla featuring Ethan Hawke in the title role, is currently in release but be forewarned, this is NOT a conventional biopic by any stretch of the imagination.    Continue reading

Home Alone

No one wants to think about growing old, becoming infirm and having to rely on others for assistance, particularly after a life of relative independence. While some are lucky enough to have family and friends to help out, many elderly people have no one for support and are left to fend for themselves among strangers. The situation becomes even more desperate without savings or financial assistance. Certainly this isn’t a topic that the commercial cinema has often explored for obvious reasons and great films on this subject are rare indeed but occasionally a masterpiece has emerged. Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. [1952], Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru [1952], and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story [1953] are prime examples while a handful of other films remain memorable for the performances alone – Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi in Make Way for Tomorrow [1937], Art Carney in Harry and Tonto [1974] and Edith Evans in The Whisperers [1967], Bryan Forbes’s often overlooked and forgotten adaptation of Robert Nicolson’s novel, Mrs. Ross.    Continue reading

Gojko Mitic, the All-Purpose Native American from Yugoslavia

Gojko Mitic plays the title role in the East German western, Chingachgook, the Great Snake (Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange, 1967), directed by Richard Groschopp.

Westerns not made in the U.S. have always carried a patina of the exotic for fans of the genre. There have been the countless spaghetti westerns from Italy and Spain, Australia has turned out several distinctive efforts (The Man from Snowy River, Mad Dog Morgan, The Proposition) and even Japan has their own brand of western as represented by samurai films like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. But have you ever seen a western from East Germany during the 1960s when their film industry was under the control of the Socialist government? If not, Westerns with a Twist, a trilogy from DEFA (aka Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) starring Gojko Mitic is a great place to begin. This trio of “red westerns” includes The Sons of Great Bear (1966), Chingachgook, the Great Snake (1967) and Apaches (1973).   Continue reading

Lucille Ball, Douglas Sirk and a Serial Killer

That unlikely combination in the header is just part of the quirky appeal of Lured, a 1947 mystery released by United Artists which is also equal parts comedy and romance. It was a remake of the French film Pieges [1939] by Robert Siodmak and starred Erich von Stroheim, Marie Déa and Maurice Chevalier. Most biographers of Lucille Ball and director Douglas Sirk have routinely dismissed it as an insignificant film in their careers but I think part of the problem was that critics and audiences expected a genuine thriller and got something else entirely. It is an eccentric original and highly recommended for anyone who wants to see Lucille Ball in one of her most underrated and accomplished performances; she plays dance hall hostess hired by the police as an undercover female detective and “bait” for a London serial killer.   Continue reading

Omar Sharif: The Youssef Chahine Years, 1954-1956

Omar Sharif stars in Dark Waters (1956) as a sailor who has been away at sea for 3 years and comes home to find his world has changed in this melodrama directed by Youssef Chahine.

Long before Omar Sharif was discovered and made internationally famous by director David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, he was already a major star and matinee idol in his native country of Egypt. The director who truly deserves the credit for launching Sharif’s career is Youssef Chahine, easily the most famous and renowned Egyptian filmmaker of all time. Chahine discovered Sharif on a street in Alexandria, cast him as the lead in his sixth feature film, The Blazing Sun aka Struggle in the Valley (Siraa Fil-Wadi, 1954), and changed his name from Michel Chalhoub to Omar Cherif. Cast opposite Fetah Hamamah, one of Egypt’s reigning film actresses since the early 1940s, Cherif quickly established himself as a major star and female heartthrob. More importantly, he fell in love with Hamamah and they married in 1954, going on to make several movies together and becoming Egypt’s most popular romantic screen team. Continue reading

The First Anti-American Spy Film?

That was how director Ken Russell described his production of Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Whether that claim is true or not, Russell maintained it was the main reason the third entry in the Harry Palmer spy series failed at the box office. To be totally honest, none of the competing rivals in the film – Russia, the U.K., Latvia and the U.S. – are preferable over the other and come across as cynical, opportunistic entities that are only focused on their own agendas and self interests. Seen today, Billion Dollar Brain is easily most entertaining film in the five-movie franchise and deserves a reappraisal.   Continue reading