Now You See Him, Now You Don’t

Ever notice how every secret agent in the movies seems to have a gimmick? Well, Perry Liston – code name: Matchless – has got a winner. When confronted with unavoidable capture or certain death from enemies, he can literally vanish into thin air. He’s not superhuman though. His ability to become invisible at will is completely dependent on a unique ring given to him by a fellow prisoner in a Chinese jail. And the ring’s powers are limited: it can only be used once every 10 hours and the wearer can expect his invisible state to last no more than twenty minutes. Those are the rules and Matchless (1966), a quirky genre offering from Italy, plays fast and loose with the gimmick [In some markets it was released under the title Mission TS (Top Secret)].

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Metamorphosis of a German Housewife

The German film poster for PART-TIME WORK OF A DOMESTIC SLAVE (German title: Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin, 1973)

When German director Alexander Kluge first burst upon the international film scene in 1966 with his debut feature Abschied von Gestern – (Anita G.) aka Yesterday Girl, he was at the forefront of the emerging New German cinema. The movie was proclaimed “Outstanding Feature Film” at the 1967 German Film Awards with Kluge also winning for “Best Direction” and it also won numerous awards at the Venice Film Festival. After such a glorious beginning, Kluge was soon overshadowed by R.W. Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and other rising German directors as their work enjoyed wider acclaim and distribution outside Germany. That certainly didn’t discourage Kluge from moviemaking and his filmography to date includes more than 100 shorts, features and TV movies, most of which have been criminally overlooked by the same film critics who embraced his more famous peers. Yesterday Girl earned him the moniker of “The German Godard” and you can see stylistic similarities between the two directors but Kluge forged his own personal brand of cinema and one of his most important and audacious works is Gelegenheitsarbeit einer Sklavin (English title: Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, 1973).

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The Birthplace of Jazz

How’s this for a dynamite screen team – Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong? They appear together and separately in New Orleans (1947), a fictitious love story set during the end of the Golden Age of jazz circa 1917 – the year Storyville ceased to be the Crescent City’s hot spot.

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The Kidnapped Heiress

The French film poster for SEXUS (1965).

When it comes to crime films, what’s your pleasure? The genre breaks down into so many sub-categories that it helps if you have a particular theme in mind. Bank Heists? Home Invasions? Police procedurals? Gang wars? How about kidnapped heiresses? James Hadley Chase’s 1939 pulp fiction novel No Roses for Miss Blandish is a classic example of this edge situation and has been adapted for films at least twice – the 1948 British noir of the same title starring Jack La Rue and The Grissom Gang (1971), Robert Aldrich’s violent remake with Kim Darby as the unfortunate victim. Even real-life cases involving kidnapped heiresses have inspired numerous crime dramas such as the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst which spawned Abducted (1975), a sleazy exploitation rip-off from director Joseph Zito, The Ordeal of Patty Hearst, a 1979 made-for-TV dramatization, Patty Hearst (1988), Paul Schrader’s take on the events with Natasha Richardson in the title role, and probably the best of the lot, Robert Stone’s 2004 documentary, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. But, if you want to see an arty, minimalistic treatment of the kidnapped heiress theme with erotic interludes and a cool jazz score by trumpeter Chet Baker, look no further than L’enfer dans la peau (1965), a French softcore crime drama from director/writer/producer Jose Benazeraf, and released in the U.S. in an edited form entitled Sexus.

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Phantom Playmates

The Spanish film poster for THE ORPHANAGE (2007).

After opening in Spain in the Fall of 2007, Juan Antonio Bayona’s elegant ghost story El Orfanato (English title: The Orphanage) went on to generate enthusiastic word of mouth responses from its many festival showings at Cannes, Toronto, Sitges, Austin and New York while picking up various honors such as Best New Director and Best Original Screenplay at the Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards) and a nominee for the Golden Camera award at Cannes. I was lucky enough to see the movie during a visit to Girona, Spain where it was playing at a multiplex just a few blocks away from the wonderful Museu del Cinema which houses the Tomas Mallol collection (an amazing repository devoted to the beginnings and earlier origins of the medium known as the cinema). 

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The Faithful and the Faithless

The Japanese film poster for THIS TRANSIENT LIFE (1970).

Some people believe in heaven and the afterlife while others are convinced that human life is temporal and when it ends nothing remains but a corpse. A dramatization of those opposing views in a film would be a challenging task for any director but Japanese director Akio Jissoji confronts a number of philosophical and religious matters by exploring Buddhist thought and practices versus human desire in Mujo (English title: This Transient Life, 1970). The result is a fascinating and visually innovative character study that manages to balance the sacred and the profane in one of the most overlooked Japanese films of the 70s which is finally starting to receive its due thanks to resurfacing on Blu-ray in recent years.

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The Secret World of Cenci and Leonora

An eerie promotional image from the 1968 film SECRET CEREMONY starring Mia Farrow and Elizabeth Taylor, directed by Joseph Losey.

Pretentious art house bomb, neglected masterpiece or inscrutable personal project for Joseph Losey? Secret Ceremony (1968) had the misfortune to follow Boom! (1968), the director’s notoriously lambasted film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore starring the world’s most famous celebrity couple at the time, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Equally challenging for mainstream audiences, Secret Ceremony was promoted as a kinky psychodrama with lesbian overtones and such tag lines as “It’s time to speak of unspoken things” and “No one admitted the last 12 minutes.” Yet, despite the presence of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum and Mia Farrow, who had just appeared in the as-yet-unreleased Rosemary’s Baby the same year, the movie was too strange, decadent and moody to hold the attention of moviegoers and critics expecting a more traditional genre film.

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There is No Joy in Tarrville

The Hungarian film poster for DAMNATION (1988), directed by Bela Tarr.

What would it be like to live under a totalitarian regime in a godforsaken rural area where society has collapsed under economically depressed circumstances? In a place where there is no work or even a social structure, people turn to alcohol, violence, suicide, madness or a combination of the four. Capturing the psychological state of mind and physical reality of such an existence is a specialty of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who became a filmmaker in Soviet controlled Hungary in 1978. He has since become a world-renowned artist who is best known for Satantango (1994), his seven hour and 19 minute epic about the disintegration of a collective farming community. Many Tarr aficionados believe a more accessible starting point for a beginner is Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), a weird, dreamlike fable about a village that descends into chaos after the arrival of a mysterious carnival attraction. I consider both of those masterworks but a better entry point to his brand of cinema might be Karhozat (English title: Damnation) from 1988. It is shorter (a mere two hours) than his two better known works but also the film that launched his international career and a visually fascinating example of his slow cinema aesthetic which favors long, uninterrupted camera shots that can often last from six to eleven minutes in length. It is also occasionally lumped into that genre known as cinema miserablism by some critics but feels more like a deep dive into a dense but atmospheric novel.

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Pinko Paranoia

Only two years after WW2 officially ended on September 2, 1945, relations between the United States and the USSR cooled and became frosty, ushering in The Cold War era, which lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. Hollywood was quick to capitalize on this disturbing new reality by producing and releasing a string of anti-communist dramas, adventures and spy thrillers, many of them grade A productions with major stars from the top studios. One of the earliest releases was The Iron Curtain (1948) from 20th-Century-Fox, which was directed by William A. Wellman and reunited Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney from Laura in a true life story about a Soviet defector in Canada. Many others followed such as The Red Danube (1949) and Conspirator (1949) from MGM, Diplomatic Courier (1952) with Tyrone Power battling Soviet agents in post-war Europe and Leo McCarey’s infamous red scare melodrama, My Son John (1952). Even John Wayne got on the patriotic bandwagon and sounded off against the commies in Big Jim McLain (1952) from United Artists, Blood Alley (1955) from Warner Brothers, and Jet Pilot (1957) from RKO. All of these, however, were high profile releases compared to 5 Steps to Danger (1957),  a modest but highly entertaining indie feature from Grand Productions (distributed by United Artists), which teamed up Sterling Hayden and Ruth Roman.

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Pietro Germi’s Sicilian Marriage Farce

One doesn’t usually expect a film about infidelity, divorce and murder to be a comedy but that’s one reason Divorzio all’italiana (English title: Divorce, Italian Style, 1961) directed by Pietro Germi, became an unexpected international hit. A caustic satire about the Italian male – or more specifically, Sicily’s male dominated culture – the film also poked fun at Italy’s hypocritical judicial system which can forgive crimes of passion but not legally recognize divorce as a solution for failed marriages. Another factor in the movie’s success was Marcello Mastroianni’s beautifully rendered portrayal of the preening, self-absorbed protagonist, a performance which not only won him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (the first time in Academy Award history that the lead in a foreign language film received that honor) but still ranks as one of the actor’s key films, following closely on the heels of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). 

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