Guilty Bystanders

The Japanese film poster for Mikkai aka THE ASSIGNATION (1959), directed by Ko Nakahira.

A young couple are enjoying a romantic rendezvous in a hidden grove at a city park at twilight. It turns out to be an illicit affair. The woman is the married wife of a law professor and her lover is one of his students. Their privacy is interrupted by the arrival of a speeding taxi that crashes into an embankment nearby. Inside the driver is seen struggling with the backseat occupant. It ends badly with the driver murdered and his body dragged into the bushes. The killer flees and the young couple are faced with a dilemma. Should they go to the police and risk exposing their affair or remain silent? This is the pressing issue that drives the narrative of The Assignation (Japanese title: Mikkai, 1959), directed by Ko Nakahira. 

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Udo Kier’s First Feature Film

Udo Kier plays a rising gang leader in the bleak 1968 crime expose SHAMELESS (German title: Schamlos).

Long before Udo Kier became the go-to eclectic supporting actor who stole his scenes in films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), the sci-fi fantasy Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (1997) and numerous films by Lars von Trier, the German actor was already firmed established as a cult film icon from the 1970s. In addition to playing the lead in two Andy Warhol productions, Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), he starred in the sadistic period piece The Mark of the Devil (1970), Just Jaeckin’s S&M erotica The Story of O (1975), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and R.W. Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979). Kier, who was born in 1944, is still going strong today at age 78 with more than 250 film and TV series in his filmography and a rare leading role in Swan Song (2021), in which he plays a retired hairdresser who agrees to perform one last makeover on a deceased client. But if you want to see him at the beginning of his career, look no further than his debut feature film Shameless (German title, Schamlos, 1968), in which he plays a ruthless young gangster who tries to muscle in on his rival’s business operations in Vienna, Austria.

Udo Kier has a rare starring role in the bittersweet comedy-drama SWAN SONG (2021).
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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 Worm Turns

Japanese film poster for THE GLAMOROUS GHOST (1964)

The Glamorous Ghost (Japanese Title: Sanpo Suru Reikyusha, 1964) is something of a rarity in Japanese cinema – a noir comedy. This is the sort of twisty, convoluted farce in which all of the main characters are greedy, immoral and deceitful and you end up rooting for Asami (Ko Nishimura), the taxi driver protagonist, only because he is a pitiful underdog with a simple dream – to retire and run a pig farm in the country. His plan to accomplish that, however, involves blackmail and worse and before The Glamorous Ghost reaches its macabre but amusing climax, most of the major players have departed this mortal coil.

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The Girl with the Fishing Spear

Mari Shirato plays a fisherman’s widow who is preparing to avenge her husband in the 1984 thriller Mermaid Legend, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda.

In 1984 ATG (Art Theater Guild), one of the most experimental and artistic of Japan’s film distribution companies, and Directors Company, released Ningyo Densetsu, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda. ATG had already established itself as a cutting-edge visionary with such releases as Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), Shuji Terayama’s Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and Seijun Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen (1980). Ningyo Densetsu was something altogether different – a commercially viable fusion of murder mystery, white collar crime and revenge thriller which looked more mainstream than most of ATG’s previous releases. Also known as Mermaid Legend, the movie is also much more extreme than some of the most infamous exploitation films of its era yet it is distinguished by its artistry in all areas of production. But make no mistake, this is not family-friendly fare or recommended for fans of The Little Mermaid

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Tarot Cards, Talismans, Seances and Telekinesis

People usually have certain expectations when they invest the time to watch a movie, especially if it has been advertised as a genre film like a western, sci-fi or horror thriller. This must have been a perplexing problem for the distributors of Arcana (1972), Guilio Questi’s mysterious tale of a widow and her brooding son who use fortune telling, tarot cards and seances to con a gullible clientele. The film dabbles in the supernatural but it also flirts with other topics like voyeurism, incest, Macedonian rituals, neglected children, middle class despair and inept bureaucracies. Some critics have pigeonholed Arcana as a horror film and it is certainly horrific in tone and attitude but don’t expect the movie to conform to genre conventions. The director even issues a disclaimer at the beginning: “To the watchers: This movie is not a story but a game of cards. For this reason both its start and the epilogue are not believable. You are the players. Play smartly and you’ll win.” Make of that what you will, I think Arcana works best as a puzzle, even if it is an often inscrutable and unsolvable one that is presented in two acts. Continue reading

Follow the Money

In an amoral world where everyone is a liar, cheat, assassin or ruthless opportunist, can there be any heroes? It all comes down to a matter of charisma and underdog appeal in West German director Klaus Lemke’s Negresco – Eine Todliche Affare (1968), which is also known by the far more suggestive title, My Bed is Not for Sleeping. The film is a flashy, colorful bauble of swinging sixties cinema that flirts with several genres without committing to any. Is it an espionage thriller? A sexy jet-set romance? A cynical expose of the La Dolce Vita crowd and their pretentious lives?  Continue reading

Vampire Machine

First, let me get this out of the way. The Bloodstained Lawn (Italian title: Il Prato macchiato di Rosso, 1973) is a haphazard mash-up of a genre film, but an entertaining one for Eurotrash completists. The English language title suggests it might be a giallo or a horror film or even a poliziotteschi (crime drama). Actually, it has some elements of those with some sci-fi flavoring added. The central premise involves a form of vampirism which is a complete departure from the old school mythology of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and much closer to the metaphorical horrors of Alain Jessua’s Shock Treatment (French title: Traitement de Choc, 1973) and Rod Hardy’s Thirst (1979). Oddly enough, director Riccardo Ghione seems much less interested in playing up the horrific aspects of the story than depicting bourgeois decadence and the exploitation of the disenfranchised as a quasi-political fantasy. Continue reading

A Tale from the Slums of Rome

In its own way, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 directorial debut Accattone could be seen as the last gasp of the Italian neo-realism movement. It is also a remarkably self-assured first film that blends the lyrical with the sordid in its depiction of life on the outskirts of Rome where pimps, thieves and petty criminals scrounge for a living with little hope of ever escaping their dead-end existence. Based on Pasolini’s second novel, Una Vita Violenta, Accatone successfully launched Pasolini as a film director but also marked the beginning of an acting career for Franco Citti in the title role. What is most interesting is that Una Vita Violenta was again adapted for the screen under that title the following year but it is hardly ever mentioned or revived. Pasolini had no involvement with the production but it did star Franco Citti in the central role of Tommaso, a character similar to Accattone, and the two films would make a fascinating double feature in terms of their contrasting tones and directorial style.  Continue reading

The Age of Assassins (1967)

A paranoid conspiracy thriller delivered in a droll tongue-in-cheek style with generous helpings of black comedy and anti-establishment satire doesn’t really fit neatly into any genre and Kihachi Okamoto’s The Age of Assassins (1967 aka Epoch of Murder Madness; Japanese title: Satsujin Kyojidai) was generally dismissed by critics and avoided by audiences when it was first released in the late sixties. Like many of Okamoto’s films, it didn’t receive theatrical distribution outside of its own country and that’s a shame because the film has the essential goods to become a bona fide cult classic on the order of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967) or Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard (1968). The Age of Assassins arrived at the tail end of the secret agent craze but it is not really a James Bond parody. Think of it instead as a crazy quilt journey through an off-kilter, pop culture universe where no one is who they appear to be.   Continue reading