The New Orleans Streetfighter

If you have never been tempted to see Charles Bronson in one of his many top-billed action vehicles, then you also probably wonder why he enjoyed superstar status on an international level. But put aside your skepticism for a moment and consider Hard Times (1975), a Depression-era tale about a mysterious drifter named Chaney who makes a living as a bare-knuckle streetfighter.

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Having a Wild Weekend

In the late sixties there were a number of sun-drenched erotic romps from Italy filmed in picturesque settings around the Mediterranean such as Giuliano Biagetti’s Interrabang (1969) and Ottavio Alessi’s Top Sensation aka The Seducers (1969). Most of these promised and delivered sexy scenarios with abundant nudity (primarily female), murder and risqué situations for the sexploitation crowd. The Sex of Angels (Italian title: Il Sesso degli Angeli, 1968) comes on like the ultimate softcore fantasy but turns out to be a complete tease. In fact, unlike others of its ilk, The Sex of Angels is actually a morality tale about the consequences of hedonism as well as a critique of the free love generation.

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A Concert Pianist’s Worst Nightmare

The German film poster for the 1924 silent classic THE HANDS OF ORLAC.

What is the worst thing that could happen to a celebrated world class pianist? It would have to be something that destroyed his famous hands, wouldn’t it? The Hands of Orlac, based on a novel by Maurice Renard, has been adapted for the screen numerous times but the 1924 version by German director Robert Wiene remains a masterpiece of silent horror cinema.

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Truckers on Speed

“The Pill Dragnet! Blasting the Blackest Market of all…the girl peddlers of the deadliest thrill for sale!” – one of the taglines for Death in Small Doses (1957).    

In the grand tradition of other B-movie crime expose of the fifties such as Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Phenix City Story (1955), and New Orleans Uncensored (1955), this little known 1957 programmer from Allied Artists (formerly known as poverty row studio, Monogram Pictures) has all the earmarks of a routine, low budget exploitation drama aimed at the drive-ins and double bill grindhouses of its era but it also serves up some surprises and memorably wacko moments for those who think they’ve been down this road before.

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Robert Bresson’s Parisian Reverie

The French film poster for FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER (1971), directed by Robert Bresson.

One wouldn’t normally associate Robert Bresson with such rapturously romantic, Paris-based films as Ninotchka, An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi, and Love in the Afternoon yet Four Nights of a Dream (Quartre Nuits d’un Reveur, 1971) is probably the closest the French director has ever come to making a film about love, longing and desire. You could even say it is almost a musical since strolling street musicians occasionally break into song at unexpected moments in the narrative.

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…And You Thought Donald Pleasence Was Creepy?

Angela Pleasence stars in the 1974 psychodrama SYMPTOMS, directed by Jose Ramon Larraz.

Angela Pleasence, like her father, has a face made for the cinema though not in the realm of conventional leading ladies. Even as a young actress appearing in bit parts in movies like Here We Go Around the Mulberry Bush (1968) and The Love Ban (1973), she was never a winsome ingénue or the lovable girl next store. Her uniquely peculiar beauty – especially those hungry eyes that bore holes right through you – must have somehow hindered her movie career because her film roles have been few and far between. She is mostly remembered for her television work, particularly her role as Catherine Howard in the 1970 TV mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, but she should have had the film career her father had on the basis of Symptoms (1974) alone.  

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The Beat Goes On

Hollywood has churned out countless musical biographies on popular musicians, singers and songwriters over the years, jazz artists and their life stories have remained a virtually untapped genre with few exceptions (Bird, Clint Eastwood’s 1988 portrait of Charlie Parker, 2015’s Born to be Blue with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker). There was a brief time in the fifties, however, where public interest in some of the big band legends and early jazz innovators resulted in a spate of high-profile biopics: The Glenn Miller Story [1953], The Benny Goodman Story [1955], and The Five Pennies [1959), starring Danny Kaye as jazz trumpeter Red Nichols. Coming at the end of the cycle was The Gene Krupa Story [1959] which featured Sal Mineo (twenty years old at the time) in his first adult screen role. 

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The Reluctant Libertine

Hollywood’s penchant for remakes is not a new development but a strategy that has served some of our most acclaimed directors in often surprising and unique reworkings of the original source material. Take, for instance, Billy Wilder’s 1964 sex comedy, Kiss Me, Stupid. It was actually adapted from Anna Bonacci’s 1944 play, L’ora della fantasia [The Dazzling Hour], which, in turn, became the 19th century costume farce Wife for a Night (1952, aka Moglie per una notte), directed by Mario Camerini, a popular Italian film director who is best known for a number of 1930s hit comedies starring Vittorio de Sica and a 1954 version of the Greek myth Ulysses with Kirk Douglas. 

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The Backward Life of Bedrich Frydrych

Bedrich Frydrych (Vladimir Mensik) experiences his life in reverse from his death by guillotine all the way back to his infant birth in the 1967 Czech comedy HAPPY END.

The cinematic concept of telling a story in reverse order might seem like a creative rejection of the traditional chronological narrative but it is nothing new. Polish filmmaker Jean Epstein experimented with this approach as early as 1927 with the avant-garde short The Three-Sided Mirror (La Glace a trois faces) but in recent years we have seen numerous examples of the reverse narrative in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and two films by Christopher Nolan, Memento (2000) and Tenet (2020). Betrayal (1983), the brilliant screen adaptation of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play, is probably my favorite example of the backward narrative in terms of its cumulative emotional power but Happy End (1967) by Czech filmmaker Oldrich Lipsky might be the funniest and most visually inventive example of this novel gimmick.

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The Kaiju Eiga Man

Special Effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya with the caterpillar version of the creature that became MOTHRA (1961), a Japanese monster fantasy cult favorite.

When the subject of Japanese film comes up, you might assume that Akira Kurosawa is that nation’s most famous filmmaker in terms of international recognition and critical acclaim. Yet, a 2014 book by August Ragone (published by Chronicle Books), makes a good case for another filmmaker from Japan whose worldwide popularity, especially among sci-fi/fantasy fans, is probably greater than Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa combined.  His name is Eiji Tsuburaya. What? The name doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe you’ve heard of Godzilla (1954) or Mothra (1961) or Destroy All Monsters (1968) or Rodan (1956) or countless other sci-fi/fantasy films from Toho Studios that featured Tsuburaya’s special effects? 

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