A Madcap Chase Across Brazil

On September 6, 2021, France lost one of their biggest cinema icons of the 20th century with the death of Jean-Paul Belmondo at age 88. The actor attained international fame in 1960 for his charismatic performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as an amoral car thief on the lam. He was the epitome of bad boy cool in that film and would enhance that screen persona in other crime dramas like Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962). Then, Belmondo reached an even wider international audience with the cross-over commercial hit, That Man from Rio (1964), which was even more accessible to the average moviegoer than Breathless, especially in America.

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Thomas Schamoni’s Almost Forgotten 1970 Experiment from the New German Cinema Movement

The New German Cinema of the late sixties-early seventies introduced the world to some of the most original and provocative filmmakers of the 20th century such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlondorff, but some of pioneers never attracted much attention outside their own country and their films are in danger of being forgotten. Among them are Helma Sanders-Brahms, Peter Lilienthal, Hans W. Geissendorfer and Thomas Schamoni, who is probably the most obscure of them all. Schamoni worked for most of his career in television, turning out documentaries and made-for-TV movies, but in 1970 he directed his only feature film, A Big Grey-Blue Bird (German title: Ein grober graublauer Vogel). A lo-fi mashup of sci-fi and spy genre elements reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), it is a playful and surprisingly entertaining cinematic “experiment” that should have found a wider audience.

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The Dirty Little Coward Roadshow

After recently rewatching I Shot Jesse James on DVD from Criterion’s Eclipse label, I couldn’t get a certain scene out of my head. As you may know, this 1949 film is Samuel Fuller’s directorial debut about Robert Ford, the “dirty little coward” who assassinated the frontier legend in 1882 and the scene that pops out occurs not long after Jesse (played by Reed Hadley) is dead and buried. Ford (John Ireland) begins performing re-enactments of the event on stages for money as he travels around capitalizing on his notoriety. At first, I thought this was just a fantasy from Fuller’s fevered, pulp fiction imagination but after doing some research it appears to be true. Robert Ford really did take his act on the road, billing it as “Outlaws of Missouri,” and, night after night before paying audiences, he would act out that fateful day when he shot Jesse James. 

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Oedipus Rex in Drag

Next to William Shakespeare, Sophocles is probably the most enduring and internationally renowned dramatist in terms of his work still being adapted for the stage, television and cinema and I doubt you will find a more bizarre or outre version of his Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex than Funeral Parade of Roses. Directed by Japanese avant-garde filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto, this revelatory 1969 movie – it was his first feature film after several experimental shorts – is just as fresh and startling today as it was when it first appeared over fifty years ago.    Continue reading

The Holy Bray

The title character of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a donkey who goes through a series of owners in his sad life as a beast of burden.

Films about animals or featuring them as the main protagonists are usually the province of Walt Disney and other family friendly productions such as Benji (1974) and March of the Penguins (2005). Other than the horror genre, though, there have been relatively few departures from the usual formulaic approach to this type of movie with Jerome Bolvin’s dark satire Baxter (1989) and the ethnographic Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) being two of the rare exceptions. Yet nothing can really compare with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, which stands alone as a profound and singular achievement in this category.   Continue reading

The Naked Lens of Philippe Garrel

Jean Seberg is the main focus of Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (1974).

In 1974 very few people outside of France knew anything about Philippe Garrel, an experimental filmmaker who had first attracted attention in Parisian film circles with his 1964 fifteen minute short, Les Enfants Desaccordes (1964). Decidedly non-commercial, Garrel’s abstract, often autobiographical ruminations on disenfranchised youth and the vagaries of romantic love appealed to a fringe group of European cinephiles. But Les Hautes Solitudes, which was first screened in Paris in December 1974, raised Garrel’s profile considerably due to the film’s cast which included model/actress/singer Nico (formerly of The Velvet Underground) and current companion of Garrel, French stage and screen star Laurent Terzieff, the stunning Tina Aumont (daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont and, most notably, American actress Jean Seberg, who had reinvented her screen career in France with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Continue reading

The Unforeseen Journey from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1 AM to D.A. Pennebaker’s 1 PM

With more than 100 feature films, shorts, video and TV work to his credit, Jean-Luc Godard is surely the most audacious, groundbreaking and prolific filmmaker from his generation. Even longtime admirers and film historians have probably not seen all of his work and some of it like the political cinema he made with Jean-Pierre Gorin under the collaborative name Groupe Dziga Vertov is tough going for even the most ardent Godard completist. Weekend (1967) is generally acknowledged as the last film Godard made before heading in a more experimental, decidedly non-commercial direction which roughly stretched from 1969 until 1980 when he reemerged from the wilderness with the unexpected art house success, Sauve qui peut (Every Man for Himself). But most of the work he made during that eleven year period prior to 1980 championed social and political change through ideological scenarios and leftist diatribes that were overly cerebral and static compared to earlier career milestones like Breathless (1960), Contempt (1963) and Pierrot le Fou (1965).

Yves Montand (center in raincoat) and Jane Fonda (lower right) star in Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout Va Bien (1972).

Of the films he made during the Groupe Dziga Vertov period, only Tout Va Bien (1972), which starred Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, attracted mainstream critical attention but most of the reviews at the time were indifferent or hostile to this Marxist, Bertolt Brecht-inflluenced polemic about a workers’ strike at a sausage factory. Much more interesting to me was the film he attempted to make in 1969, tentatively titled 1 AM (or One American Movie). A collaboration with cinema-verite pioneers D. A. Pennabaker and Richard Leacock, the project was abandoned after Godard lost interest during the editing phase but Pennebaker ended up completing his own version of the existing footage which he titled 1 PM (or One Parallel Movie). This is a brief history of the film’s journey from concept to screen.  Continue reading

Jess Franco’s Attack of the Robots

Imagine a science-fiction influenced spy thriller about humanoid assassins directed by Jess Franco with a screenplay adaptation by Jean-Claude Carrière (a frequent collaborator with Luis Bunuel), a cool jazz score by Paul Misraki (Alphaville, Le Doulos, Les Cousins) and an international cast featuring Eddie Constantine, Fernando Rey and Francoise Brion. It sounds like a film buff’s fever dream but it actually exists. Released in 1966 during the height of the James Bond craze, Cartes sur table aka Attack of the Robots is a stylish and amusing entertainment that takes a standard world domination-by-madman scenario and infuses it with a cheeky sense of humor. The film will come as a surprise to those who only associate Jess Franco with Eurotrash favorites like 99 Women (1969), Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Wanda, the Wicked Warden (1977).

Eddie Constantine as Interpol agent Al Pereira in Jess Franco’s Cartes sur table (aka Attack of the Robots, 1966).

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In the Shadows of the OAS

L'Insoumis (1964)L’insoumis (1964) aka The Unvanquished is a relatively unknown but deeply compelling and haunting French film from director Alain Cavalier that aired several years ago on TCM in an English language version titled Have I the Right to Kill? (It was originally distributed by MGM in the U.S.) Shot in glorious black and white by master cinematographer Claude Renoir, the film plays like a politically-charged film noir and it could easily be the best of Alain Delon’s early performances. In the other key role, Lea Massari, the beautiful Italian actress who is best known as the warm, charismatic mother in Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), has rarely been more appealing.  Continue reading

The Pinku-Yakuza Eiga Combo That is Something Else Entirely

Hitman Sho (Yuichi Minato) fantasizes about killing his rival Ko (Shohei Yamamoto) in Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1967, aka Dutch Wife in the Desert)

Hitman Sho (Yuichi Minato) fantasizes about killing his rival Ko (Shohei Yamamoto) in Sex Doll of the Wastelands (1967, aka Dutch Wife in the Desert)

Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands sounds like a make-believe movie title but it actually exists. Made in 1967, this genuine head scratcher that is also known as Dutch Wife in the Desert (Koya no Dacchi waifu) has elements of two popular genres in Japanese cinema – softcore erotic films (Pinku eiga) and gangster dramas (Yakuza eiga) – but is unlikely to please fans of either due to its fragmented narrative structure and emphasis on style at the expense of delivering the expected goods (sex and violence) in a logical linear progression. In other words, it’s chaotic, rude, goofy, pretentious, misogynistic (big surprise), and unafraid to be boring or narcissistic.    Continue reading