Beneath the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean

The French film poster for THE SILENT WORLD (1956), Jacques Cousteau’s first feature length documentary.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was undoubtedly one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century but what he discovered was a world most people had never seen before and it was hiding in plain sight under the ocean. His scientific innovations to deep sea diving and his never-before-seen underwater cinematography introduced most people to marine life, behavior and landscapes that were just as strange, beautiful and mysterious as life on another planet. Although he had made numerous short documentaries on the sea throughout the forties starting with Par Dix-huit Metres de Fond in 1943, it was feature length non-fiction film debut, The Silent Sea (Le Monde du Silence, 1956), co-directed with Louis Malle, that first attracted international attention and inspired school kids to want to become explorers, photographers and oceanographers. Seen today, the film is still a fascinating introduction to Cousteau’s world but, like some nature documentaries, it presents images of unearthly beauty mixed with cruelty and violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mondo Cane-like exploitation expose. It also presents a more pristine world under the sea before oil spills, global warming and overfishing helped reduce marine life as well as eradicating entire species of fish. 

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Little Demons

DON”T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK 1973 starring Kim Darby & Jim Hutton

“We Want You Sally….We Want You….Come to Us!” 

For those who first saw Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at a young impressionable age when it originally aired on ABC in 1973, those maniacal, whispering voices of the little demons have probably stayed with you and so has this creepy little made-for-TV movie that has one of the more memorable endings of any haunted house genre picture. 

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The Outsider and His Art

The image of the starving artist, living in poverty and misunderstood by everyone during his own lifetime, is an age-old cliché but is often based on true accounts. One of the more famous examples is Niko Pirosmanashvili, a self-taught artist from Mirzaani, Georgia, who was not motivated by money or fame but often used his paintings as barter for bed and board. He was born in 1862 and died in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1918 of alcoholism and starvation but his work is now considered part of the Russian avant-garde movement which flourished between 1890 and 1930. Pirosmani, the 1969 film biography by Russian director Giorgi Shengelaia, is an attempt to capture the spirit of the artist’s work without resorting to the usual biopic structure of dramatizing key events or providing any psychological insight into the subject. Instead, Shengelaia presents Pirosmani’s life as a string of episodes that are closer in style to an ethnographic documentary while duplicating some of the artist’s most famous paintings as part of the narrative landscape.

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Trance State

The Polish film industry is not exactly famous for its contributions to the science fiction genre but there have been a few novel exceptions over the years. Piotr Szulkin’s O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization (1985) and Andrzej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe (1988) are among the more renowned titles although they are much closer to art house/avant-garde cinema than accessible commercial entertainments for the movie-going public. Much more audience friendly but even more obscure is Medium, a fascinating blend of science fiction, murder mystery and the occult, which has slowly developed a cult following since its original release in 1985 (It can be streamed on Youtube with English subtitles).

The Polish film poster for Andrzej Zulawski’s ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1988)
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Georges Franju & Jean Cocteau: Thomas the Impostor

World War I has been the subject of some of the most powerful and prestigious films in cinema from King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and more recently, Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), nominated for ten Oscars including Best Picture. All of those films captured the grim horrors of the battlefield, the demoralization and death toll of the troops and the often reckless or unnecessary military strategies of commanding officers. Going against the grain is Thomas l’imposteur (Thomas the Impostor), based on Jean Cocteau’s 1923 novel which was inspired by his own experiences during WW1 as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. Directed by Georges Franju from a screenplay by himself, Cocteau and Michel Worms, the 1965 film views war through the experiences of two idealistic dreamers, one an aristocrat, the Princess de Bormes (Emmanuelle Riva), the other an orphan (Fabrice Rouleau), who lies about his age and invents a fake backstory for himself so he can enlist. The result is a unique take on the Great War which combines the ambiance of a dark fairy tale with a realistic but emotionally detached approach to the events as they affect the two main protagonists.

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Surf’s Up!

West Coast surfers in the late fifties knew Bruce Brown as a fellow surfer who started filming his surfing exploits with his buddies before Gidget became a best-selling novel in 1957. Hollywood bought the rights and turned it into a hit movie in 1959 starring Sandra Dee. For most movie audiences, it was their first exposure to the popular sport of surfing but Brown was already well known among California surfers before that due to his own surfing movies. He would shoot them without sound and travel around showing them to fellow surfers while narrating the footage in person; occasionally a yet-to-be-famous band called The Beach Boys provided musical accompaniment.. His first documentary effort Slippery When Wet appeared in 1958 and he followed it up with six more surfing features over the next seven years. It was in 1965 when Brown became a household name after the release of The Endless Summer, a surprise box office hit that inspired a whole new generation of surfers and ended up on the top ten list of many major film critics. In 2010 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress which solidified its reputation as the holy grail of surfing documentaries.

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The Sociopath’s Playbook

The Japanese film poster for THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959), directed by Eizo Sugawa.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sociopath is a person who has a personality disorder which causes them to behave in an aggressive, violent or unpleasant way towards other people. The general opinion among psychiatrists is that sociopaths are not born that way, which is usually the case with psychopaths. Instead, sociopaths are shaped by their environment and experiences. A classic example of this is profiled in Eizo Sugawa’s Yaju Shisubeshi (English title: The Beast Shall Die). The protagonist of this 1959 psychological thriller is Date Kunihiko (Tatsuya Nakadai), a quiet, well-mannered graduate student who is exceptionally gifted as a writer and athlete. Behind his benign façade, however, is a cunning sociopath with a plan that slowly reveals itself as the film unfolds. As portrayed by Nakadai, Date is a truly chilling figure and one of his least known but most potent early performances. It deserves to be included with his more celebrated work in such Japanese masterpieces as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-1961), Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966) and numerous collaborations with Akira Kurosawa such as Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963) and Kagemusha (1980).

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Homeward Bound

The original film poster for Children of Nature (1991), an Oscar nominee from Iceland.

Films about aging and the elderly are not that prevalent in Hollywood’s yearly production schedule of new films for obvious reasons. It is not a subject that most moviegoers seeking escapism, especially younger viewers, want to contemplate. It is also a risky commercial proposition unless the film is a heartwarming drama with broad appeal (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989) or a feel-good comedy like Harold and Maude (1970), which was a box office flop on its initial release before it went on to become a profitable cult hit. Of course, some of the undisputed masterpieces of 20th century cinema have focused on senior citizens like Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952), Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) but these are not mass appeal attractions but the favorites of a niche art house audience. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Paradise aka Born Natturunnar (1991) is certainly a film that belongs in this latter grouping but is distinctly different in tone, combining social realism with deadpan humor and a touch of magical realism.

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Ants in Your Pants and Worse!

There have been killer ant movies before – Them! (1954), The Naked Jungle (1954), and Empire of the Ants (1977) come to mind – but Phase IV, released in 1974, may be the first and only killer ant art film. With its abstract, almost experimental approach to narrative and character development, it’s a much closer cousin to something like…say, Last Year at Marienbad (1961) than Them! While it was marketed as a science fiction film and clearly belongs in that genre, the film was both puzzling and disappointing to a certain sector of that audience that expected a killer ant movie to deliver thrills, chills and a satisfying ending.  Yet, once you accept the fact that Phase IV is not a conventional sci-fi film and will not conform to the genre conventions that you expect, you may find it absolutely chilling and brilliant. 

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The Great Tube Caper

The name Wolf Rilla might sound like a pseudonym for some superstar wrestling champion but movie buffs know him for Village of the Damned (1960), a superb adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic sci-fi novel by John Wyndham. Although he primarily specialized in B-movie genre films, his work was usually much better than the competition and he made some memorable comedies like Bachelor of Hearts (1958) as well as first-rate crime dramas like Witness in the Dark (1959). One of his lesser-known movies that was mostly overlooked or underrated at the time is Piccadilly Third Stop (1960) and it looks even better now, offering a time capsule look at London in the early sixties plus an exceptional ensemble of actors playing would-be crooks plotting a major heist.  

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