Christmas Lockdown in the Eternal City

An alternate release poster for the Roberto Rossellini film ERA NOTTE A ROMA (1960)

Available for years in inferior public domain prints and poor video transfers, Robert Rossellini’s influential WW2 trilogy [Rome Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and German Year Zero (1949)], which firmly established him as the “father of Neorealism”, finally received 4K high-definition digital transfers from The Criterion Collection in 2017. Linked thematically to this trilogy, however, is a later Rossellini film, Era Notte a Roma [English title, Escape by Night aka Blackout in Rome,1960), which, unfortunately, has never enjoyed the reputation or respect of this seminal trilogy. I first saw a 16mm print of the film from Films Inc. years ago when it still licensed titles from The Audio Brandon Collection. I had a chance to revisit Era Notte a Roma again recently on DVD and am still baffled by the movie’s low profile since its original release.

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Subterranean Homesick Blues

The Japanese film poster for Yatsuhaka-mura aka VILLAGE OF EIGHT GRAVESTONES (1977)

Not all homecomings are happy affairs and, if you want to experience one that makes a good argument against family reunions, consider Yatsuhaka-mura (Japanese title, Village of Eight Gravestones, 1977), which presents the ancestral homestead as a cursed place with a dark history. Tatsuya (played by former pop singer Ken’ichi Hagiwara), the film’s protagonist, was taken away from his mountain village by his mother when he was just a child but when he returns after many years, he feels like the ultimate outsider as he reconnects with family he never really knew. Not only is his village isolated and mired in the past but it sits upon a network of underground caves and tunnels, which hold the key to a family secret.

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Rock ‘n’ Rock Forever Will Stand

Can a penniless teenager, raised in an orphanage and self-trained as a musician, overcome the odds and win the star search radio contest hosted by superstar disc jockey Alan Freed? It’s a cinch because Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), directed by Paul Landres, is a clichéd Hollywood fantasy of pop stardom modeled on previous box office hits like Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Jailhouse Rock (1957). Yes, the story is trite, the acting is wooden and its low-budget, set-bound look is uninteresting, but none of that is important when you consider the musical talent on display in the film. With such early rock ‘n roll pioneers as Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Ritchie Valens blazing across the screen, Go, Johnny, Go! is not only an invaluable pop culture document but an immensely entertaining and occasionally cynical look at the burgeoning music industry of the late fifties.

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Lee Marvin in Canicule

As a big Lee Marvin fan, I have seen a large amount of his work on TV and the screen, even many of the early roles in the fifties when he was an unbilled bit player or an extra in such films as the war drama Teresa (1951) or the suspense thriller Diplomatic Courier (1952). As he moved into larger supporting roles, usually playing the heavy, he often became the most electrifying presence in the film, whether it was a noir (The Big Heat, 1953), western (Gun Fury, 1953) or drama (The Wild One, 1953). But he really hit his stride in the early sixties starting with his fearsome gunslinger in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and moving into starring roles with a string of iconic performances in The Killers (1962), Cat Ballou (1965), a dual role which won him the Best Actor Oscar, Ship of Fools (1965), The Professionals (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and the cult favorite Point Blank (1967). Nobody, however, even Marvin himself, could have predicted that one of his final movies would be made in France with an international cast and the result – Canicule (English title: Dog Day, 1984) – is certainly one of the oddest films of his career, if not the most eccentric.

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Witchcraft Through the Ages

How to best describe the 1922 Swedish film Haxan (also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages) by Danish director Benjamin Christensen? While not a conventional documentary by anyone’s standards, it is not a traditional narrative film either and straddles several genres in its exploration of witchcraft and the black arts from the Dark Ages up to 1921.

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Racetrack Visions

What are your favorite film adaptations of famous short stories? Among the titles in my top 20 list are Rear Window (1954), based on Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” All About Eve (1950), adapted from Mary Orr’s ”The Wisdom of Eve,” The Body Snatcher (1945), which was taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of the same name, It Happened One Night (1934), based on Samuel Hopkins Adams’ “Night Bus,” and The Rocking Horse Winner (1949), which is one of D.H. Lawrence’s best known short stories. However, the latter film is a largely unsung minor masterpiece of the British cinema that is highlighted by impeccable performances and an eerie Gothic atmosphere with almost supernatural overtones.

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Gaze into the Face of Madness!

The critically acclaimed but notoriously difficult actor Klaus Kinski in a photograph from his early years as a stage and film actor.

I’ve always thought that you had to be a little crazy to be a great actor and Klaus Kinski was more than a little crazy. If you don’t believe me read his purple prose autobiography Kinski Uncut which was also published under the title All I Need is Love in 1988. Or watch Werner Herzog’s 1999 film biography Mein liebster Feind (My Best Fiend-Klaus Kinski) about the German director’s volatile relationship with the actor. Better yet, try to get your hands on Paganini (aka Kinski Paganini), the actor’s only directorial effort and his final film, which was released in 1989. For those with all-region DVD players, you can still find PAL copies of it on Amazon’s German web site in a double disc release from SPV Recordings. If you thought Ken Russell’s film biographies of Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1970) and Liszt (Lisztomania, 1975) were excessively over-the-top and in flamboyant bad taste, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Paganini also features supporting roles for French actor Bernard Blier (Les Miserables, 1958), Dalilia Di Lazzaro (Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, 1973), Eva Grimaldi (Joe D’amoto’s Convent of Sinners, 1986), Marcel Marceau as – big surprise – a pantomine artist and Kinski’s wife Debora Capriolglio in her first lead role.

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The Girl from Parma (1963)

The Italian film poster for THE GIRL FROM PARMA (1963)

Why does it take so long for certain extremely gifted filmmakers to achieve international attention and praise for their body of work? Italian director Antonio Pietrangeli might have been popular and well-known in his own country but not so much in the U.S. where he was almost forgotten until the last decade. Thanks to filmmaker Alexander Payne, a re-discovery of Pietrangeli’s work began in 2012 after Payne hosted a showing of Lo La Conoscevo Bene (English title: I Knew Her Well, 1965) at the Telluride Film Festival that year (The Criterion Collection would later release it on Blu-ray and DVD in 2016). It was also in 2012 that Raro Films released Pietrangeli’s La Visita (English title: The Visit, 1963) on DVD in America and followed it up with a 2014 DVD release of his Adua e Le Compagne aka Hungry for Love aka Love a la Carte (1960).

The Italian film poster for I KNEW HER WELL (1965)

Retrospectives of Pietrangeli’s work at museums, film festivals and cinema archives soon followed with MoMA presenting 10 of his movies in 2015 (He only directed 11 feature films plus contributions to two anthology films, 1954’s Mid-Century Loves and 1966’s The Queens. He was more prolific as a screenwriter and also worked as an assistant director on films like Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione. It’s a shame Pietrangeli didn’t live long enough to see his work being re-discovered in the U.S. and abroad (he drowned at sea in 1968 at age 49) but renewed interest in his work doesn’t necessarily mean that most of his work is now readily available for viewing. One of his key achievements, La Parmigiana (English title: The Girl from Parma, 1963) is still missing in action but it is an impressive showcase for actress Catherine Spaak and a fine example of Pietrangeli’s unusually effective blend of comedy and drama featuring a female protagonist. In fact, most of his films view Italian society through the eyes of a sympathetic heroine or heroines.

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Kuan Tai Chen in Action

Several years before the martial arts film craze erupted in the U.S. in the early seventies, Chinese action films classified as wuxia, a combination of sword fighting and martial arts in a period setting featuring noble anti-heroes, were already dominating the Hong Kong film industry. The masterminds behind this new trend were Runme and Runde Shaw, who had initially founded the Tianyi Film Company in Shanghai with their brother Runje in 1925. Once they opened their Hong Kong movie studio in 1958, the two Shaw Brothers begin to produce box-office hits like the 1962 historical drama The Magnificent Concubine. Then, the unexpected success of The One-Armed Swordsman in 1967 launched a new action genre for the studio and the floodgates were open. One of the best of these latter efforts is The Boxer from Shantung (1972), which was a major hit in China but is not as well known here. Starring martial arts expert Kuan Tai Chen, the film is a spectacular showcase for the charismatic athlete/performer and a wonderful introduction to martial arts movies produced by the Shaw Brothers.

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Teacher’s Pest

After 13 years as a MGM player and star attraction with 19 feature films to her credit, Esther Williams found herself facing an uncertain future in 1955 when her contract with the studio ended. But her next move not only surprised herself but must have made her fans and former colleagues at MGM do a double take. She starred in a lurid psychosexual melodrama from Universal-International, shot in Technicolor, entitled The Unguarded Moment (1956). 

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