Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer: Matsutarō Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda
Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa
by Jon Cvack
Having just watched the revered Last Year at Marienbad and being incredibly disappointed, and even somewhat angry for meeting the generic stereotype of what your average viewer might consider a Black & White Art House Foreign Film from 1962, Ugetsu flips the expectation, providing exactly what you hope for - a plain and simple badass movie based on a series of supernatural stories “Ugetsu Monogatari” by Ueda Akinari, published in 1776.
It involves two couples, Tobie (Eitaro Ozawa) and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito), and Genjuro (Masayaki) and Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), as they attempt to navigate through the countryside where warlord Shibata Katsuie and his army sweeps through. Genjuro has invested all of his family’s money into a new pottery kiln, hoping to finish the first batch to town before the warlords reach their village. Barely avoiding capture, Genjuro and Ohama are to able to save the pottery, sneaking off via boat to the nearest city with their wives and children. While Ohama assists his friend and partner, he’s far more committed to becoming a samurai. Thus, when Genjuro finds his pots are selling like hot cakes and the business is a success, Tobie takes his share of money and immediately goes to have a samurai suit built and work his way into the prestigious position. Abandoning his wife Ohama and child, Ohama is soon assulated by a band of soldiers.
While selling his pottery, Genjuro is visited by the beautiful noblewoman Lady Wakasa (Kikue Mori) and her servant. Lady Wasaka wishes to marry Genjuro, who obliges, even though his wife and son are still roaming the countryside, soon stabbed another marauding band of soldiers. Later, in his samurai garbs, Tobei steals the severed head of a general, returning it to the opposing side, who awards him with new armor, horse, and entourage. However, while celebrating at a brothel, he soon discovers his abandoned wife working there. And in pure horror story fashion, when Genjuro talks to a priest about Lady Wakasa, he discovers that Lady is a ghost. Returning to the mansion, Genjuro pleads with Wakasa, explaining that he has a wife and child that he needs to return to. The Lady and Servant refuse to let him go. Genjuro escapes by jumping through a window, knocking himself out, to be awakened by soldiers. He explains the situation and they laugh - the mansion has been burned for years, with the Lady inside. He must have been hallucinating. Returning back home, Genjuro’s wife soon dies, leaving him to care for the boy.
Along with Rashomon, Ugetsu introduced Japanese cinema to American audiences and rightfully so. Both films contain simple plots, placed within a universal context, with Ugetsu serving very much as a moral tale. It explores the idea of ambition - in both the era in which warlords pillaged the countryside in conquest, and with the villagers struggling to break out of their peasantry. Genjuro’s risks his family’s life savings into a kiln, hoping that it’ll start a successful business that could finally get them to buy such simple items as a Kimono is one of the most universal endeavors there is. And when his success brings him in touch with a beautiful and wealthy women, we witness his abandoning of all that brought him to that point (see The Founder). When we discover that the Lady was nothing more than a spirit, you wonder if Genjuro would have stayed otherwise. The story very much honors Greek Tragedy, in that although attempting redemption and a return to his former life, Genjuro’s wife dies in her sleep. Only if he had stuck by her side would it have been prevented.
Tobein deals with a similar manner of temptation, believing that becoming a samurai will provide him the life and purpose that he has always desired. It’s clear that he’s more interested in the admiration and recognition he will receive than from the training and discipline it takes to become a samurai. Thus, when he steals the general’s head and proclaims that he was was the one who cut it, you’re left wondering what will be the retribution? Of course, it’s discovering his wife is now working in a brothel. It’s rare for such an old film to really hit me hard, but for anyone that’s in a relationship, this was a painful scene to watch, both from Tobei’s supreme regret and inability to correct it. Mizoguchi does an incredible job of capturing the humanity in the scene - there are no loud arguments, but rather muted lines of regret and sadness. He vows to buy her out of the business, tossing his armor away as a result.
The greatest foreign films are the ones that transcend the stereotypes; where you soon forget you’re watching a black and white foreign film made over half a century ago; where you know if you showed it to anyone who enjoys a good story that they would enjoy this, because it provides universal themes that make the world feel more unified. Ugetsu contains ghosts and battles and heartbreak, with Mizoguchi finding the balance between profundity and entertainment.
BELOW: A solid sample of the film from Criterion Collection
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Director: Federico Fellini & Alberto Lattuada
Writer: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli, & Ennio Flaiano
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
by Jon Cvack
After penning the script for Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946), Il Miracolo (1948), and penning nearly a dozen produced feature screenplays in total, Fellini teamed up with Alberto Lattuada at the age of 30 to co-direct his first feature Variety Lights. Immediately we witness what would become his magical realism style, with the story centering around a traveling theater troupe, led by Checco Dal Monte (Peppino De Filip) and his wife or girlfriend (I was unsure) Melina Amour (played by Fellini’s actual wife and classic collaborator Giulietta Masina). While traveling on a train, Checco meets the drop dead gorgeous Liliana ‘Lily’ Antonelli (Carla Del Poggio) and develops an infatuation, working his angle of being a theatrical director in order to get her to join the troupe. Excited, she accepts immediately.
We get a taste of the ragtag crew, with very little talent to boot. We get a sense that each performer has failed to move up the ranks, sticking with the troupe more out of necessity than choice. Lily lands in the dance troupe, standing out as the most beautiful and therefore the most threatening. The others are all a bit overweight, out of sync, or not that talented. Del Poggio has a timeless beauty, where even in today’s environment, she would rocket up to A-list level. It was a brilliant casting decision, allowing the audience to commiserate with Checco’s obsession, much to the frustration of Melina, who’s aware of everything Checco’s doing. In a heartbreaking scene, as the troop is forced to walk to the next town, we see Lily place her tired head upon Checco’s shoulder, who accepts excitedly, while Melina is forced to help the older and decrepit glasseater who’s fading fast. She looks over as their walking ahead, expecting Checco to help, and witnessing where the relationship is going. Tears gather up in her eyes as she knows there’s no way she could ever compete with such beauty.
The troupe ends up at a local aristocrat’s mega mansion, under the impression that he wants to help them out and see their performance, though clearly has an equally unwavering desire for Lily. In a hilarious comedy bit, Checco does everything in his power to prevent the owner’s seduction, eventually sabotaging their stay at the mansion, forcing everyone to leave in order to avoid losing Lily.
With Checco’s urging, Lily soon takes over the show, and her humble personality is replaced with ceaseless demands and ego. We’re not sure if Checco ever gets further than his obsessive and pathetic pursuit of Lily. She begins to go on dates with other wealthy men, forcing Checco into a position of such disgraceful subservience that we’re left cringing as he attempts to invite himself out on one of her dates, getting left behind, and forced to hang out in the middle of the streets all night.
Checco isn’t a bad person, so much as a child in a man’s body who’s unable to control his urges. We mostly feel bad for Melina, who’s fully aware of Checco’s determination. Even when she goes off to start her own company, and Checco petitions for her help in getting his own program restarted after everyone abandoned him - though solely to offer Lily a solid role, competitive with her larger offers - Melina acquiesces. She’s willing to help him out, as her love and loyalty are so strong, and Checco remains oblivious. Thus, when Lily finally leaves the theater altogether to get married to a young and attractive aristocrat, Checco is left with little after all his efforts. Similar to how the film began, he’s on the train, heading to the next town. He’s back to Melina who we resent has gone back to him, and yet kind of understand. And then another beautiful woman enters, sits near him, and he starts up his routine all over again.
Checco is one of Fellini’s great characters, as we can all understand the power of beauty and those carnal desires that extend beyond logic. I remember reading a neuroscientists explain why men are so easily able to abandon any sense of right or wrong when sex enters the picture. Pardoning my superficial understanding, the frontal lobe’s ability to keep our behaviors in check is a relatively recent brain development in humans. By comparison, the sex drive isn’t connected to this modern gatekeeping ability. Thus, even when some men know it’s wrong they literally cannot control themselves. Checco reflects this flawlessly. We see an old man who should know better, making a complete fool of himself, all for a girl that is far beyond his age, which we know has no realistic chance of ever ending well. It’s a thrill to watch. And for Fellini’s first picture, this is one of the better debuts from a first time director.
BELOW: Most of the videos are in Italian, but this one gives you a taste of Fellini's magical realist style
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Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Samuel and Bella Spewack (Play); based La Cuisine Des Anges by Albert Husso; Ranald MacDougall
Cinematographer: Loyal Griggs
by Jon Cvack
Michael Curtiz’s We’re No Angels is another of Humphrey Bogart’s weird forays into comedy. The film takes place on Devil’s Island, whose primary industry is the prison that sits high up on a mountain and houses some of the world’s worst criminals. When escapees Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray), and Jules (Peter Ustinov) all make it to the mainland and need to kill time to make a fairy to the mainland, they come across a local store that’s struggling financially. The shop is owned by Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll), whose beautiful daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) is heartbroken after discussing her second cousin doesn’t share the same feelings, and Felix’s wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) does her best to maintain order in the home. Having to kill time, the three fugitives decide to help out with the store.
It’s not entirely clear what makes Joseph, Albert, and Jules suddenly shift their criminality and toward helping helping the Ducotel family. Taking place during Christmas I suppose it has something to do with the holidays. Although the story takes awhile to get moving, what was most impressive is how modern both Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov felt, both in their look and how they spoke. There was a sarcasm and gentleness to their performances, allowing the characters to feel incredibly real, which was particularly strange given the film’s theatricality and largely comedic flavor. It was though you could take these two men and place them into a Coens brothers film and find it just as hilarious.
Of course, there are peculiar elements that haven’t aged all that well, such as Isabelle’s frustration over the unrequited love she has for her second cousin, or Albert’s obvious and creepy attraction to Isabelle, although she’s only seventeen. In other ways, the story felt modern, with Felix as aloof, unconfident, and undependable, which Amelie tries to make up for.
It takes awhile for the story to get going, and I imagine this would’ve played much better as a 90 minute film rather than two hours. I grew impatient as I was watching the cons manipulate the family, expecting something more exciting to happen, such as taking advantage of their trust in order to exploit the situation, or failing to control their criminal impulses. Perhaps that was the point. It was interesting to have your expectations flipped, although it wasn’t all that entertaining. Still, when the story gets going there are some great laughs, straight out of any slapstick comedy, involving a lot of people walking in and out of doors at perfectly timed moments and utilizing the space of the home and store to build tension. However, when you think about what could have been done if the police were closer to catching the fugitives than you see what could have been a highly entertaining film falling a bit flat compared to Curitz’s other movies.
In the end, after the three cons save Felix’s store, create an amazing Christmas dinner for Amelie, and find a new boy for Isabelle they take off for the docks and get ready to leave. Unfortunately, much to my frustration in any film like this, they have second thoughts and decide to return back to prison. As they walk off, Angel halos appear above their heads. I’m not sure if this was in the original play or not, but aside from always resenting when this happens in the film (that is, when a central criminal character decides to give up the treasure/money/girl/etc. as a poor and uninspired attempt at reform) I particularly didn’t understand it in this one. They are clearly pretty good guys, and unless they hoped to serve their time in order to see the Ducotel family again, I’m not entirely sure what this was trying to do, other than accommodate some studio heads who were concerned about showing fugitives going free. The whole film felt like it was only giving 75% of what it could have. It’s worth checking out, just not one of Curtiz’s best.
BELOW: The hilarious snake scene (with a terrible transfer)
Director: John Ford
Writer: Frank S. Nugent
Cinematographer: Winton Hoch
by Jon Cvack
A friend of mine randomly posted on Facebook that The Quiet Man reminded him of his father who always played it as a kid. I really liked this description since it reminded me of my grandparents and a film that they might have put on after we ate dinner and were enjoying some ice cream.
The movies is indubitably one of the most offensive movies I’ve seen from the period. Not only does John Wayne come in and boss his wife around, but by the end of the film he’s literally dragging her across the ground to teach her a lesson. This is film is very much - pretty much only - about John Ford’s love of Ireland. I suppose it would have been better if Netflix didn’t tell me he was a former boxer since we don’t learn about this until about halfway through the film. I kept thinking that Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) from Pulp Fiction had to have been inspired by this character. They both killed someone and planned to escape, in which case Butch Coolidge would go to Ireland after getting out of LA. In fact their names are strangely similar in syllabic structure - Butch Coolidge and Sean Thorton. That’s probably a stretch, but I would still push that there’s something there.
Any way - Sean pushes and/or forces himself to marry Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), who finally capitulates, except she has to trick her brother Squire (Victor McLaglen) for approval. He then finds out and refuses to pay Mary Kate her dowry. She goes on a tirade, asserting that her independence depends on receiving the dowry, but Sean doesn’t really care. I don’t really care.
The story is much more a slice of life than anything else. Like most of the pictures from the period, the guy falls in love and is willing to spend his entire life with a woman he’s only seen once and never talked to. I still don’t understand this and love how movies have preserved that this was once a thing. I just wish it wasn’t so offensive. That’s John Ford for you, though. The guy became a Republican in his later years, although his favorite presidents were Lincoln and FDR. He supported the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, and it’s not that those ideas are synonymous with misogyny, but it at least provides some clue as to why such an old fashioned approach to women was committed to celluloid. To think that because Mary Kate saw the dowry as a reflection of her independence and freedom that Sean would drag her across town and dump her at her brother’s feet is something that speaks loudly to yesteryear's gender dynamics. Sean doesn’t care about her freedom and wants her to be the good housewife that he imagined she could be. In those days it seems like it wasn’t about companionship and encouragement. For some men, it was about having a servant to wait at your every need and meet your expectations of what makes for a good wife. We can admire Mary Kate for trying. We can fault Ford for allowing her to fail.
BELOW: An extremely and hilariously long fight sequence, on par with They Live! (still offensive)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Lesser Samuels and Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cinematographer: Milton R. Krasner
by Jon Cvack
This one of those films that makes you cringe for in any way admiring yesteryear. The movie I could best compare it to is Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), proving cinema's ability capture moments and ideas within a particular time, demonstrating to anyone who either refuses to think things were never all that bad or haven’t got much better, that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, No Way Out leaves you in awe at the prodigious level of racism, ubiquitous only half a century ago. Released fourteen years before the Civil Rights Act and you can bet this movie had an influence.
Sidney Poitier gives an amazing performance as Doctor Brooks, who’s willing to risk his entire career in order to vindicate himself against a murder accusation from two white and racist criminals admitted to the hospital, one of whom dies. As usual, Poitier commands every scene and situation. Similar to In the Heat of the Night, even when dealing with the slightest injustice Poitier embodies all of the anger and frustration against a bigoted system and fully asserts himself, no matter the risk. I don’t think any other actor has been able to so physically express the frustrations of an entire community. It’s no wonder that all those who might have been too afraid or too anxious to assert themselves while their boss or neighbor passively or directly espoused their bigotry, hoping to speaking up and fearing what would happen, found a hero in Poitier, who demonstrated that no matter the consequence, standing up for yourself is worth it. The man provided a voice to the voiceless.
The sad thing is I’m sure similar situations still happen today. Whether Muslim, woman, black, atheist, gay, mentally ill, etcetera, there are still those who are willing to doubt a person’s skill and prowess based on irrelevant superficialities. No Way Out demonstrates that asserting yourself is far beyond the individual. To think of all those who might have seen the movie and enrolled in medical school, ready to fight for their place in a bigoted system makes me realize how important this movie is and was. It is a movie serving the highest function - to change a broken and unjust system.
BELOW: Watch some of the film
Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Cinematographer: Jack Asher
by Susan Bartley
This is one of seven sequels to the Hammer Frankenstein series. Unlike The Mummy (1959) this is another film that falls into tedium as I was waiting for the action to pick up. Dr. Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) has moved to a new town, sets up a successful practice that has begun to take business away from the other doctors, and he’s developing another monster. There’s a great set which has extravagant lab pieces; we see how eyeballs are controlled by placing them into an aquarium and running an electrical current; Dr. Frankenstein finds a loyal apprentice and the monster comes alive and begins killing. It’s just not all that interesting. I was waiting for more screams and chills and cool sets, but was instead forced to have to listen to people talk, and talk and talk and talk. An especially boring and extensive scene involves the medical committee revoking Dr. Frankenstein's license to practice medicine. The citizens eventually awake to his psychotic tendencies, the monster is killed, Frankenstein survives and of course Dr. Frankenstein maintains his fervor in creating another one.
I’m still excited to check out the other five of the series where a few of the latter are supposed to be some of the best, though I’m pretty sure the next three are rated even lower than Revenge of Frankenstein which makes me anxious to have to sit through all of those in order to get to the good stuff. It’s another movie where the poster is better than the film and if I could get a collage of all eight Hammer Frankenstein posters it might motivate me to plough through the remainder of the series as I’d have to justify hanging them on my wall.
BELOW: RoF trailer that makes the movie look far better than it is
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester
Cinematography: Ted Scaife
by Tory Maddox
On Netflix, the DVD is advertised as two movies - Curse of the Demon and Night of the Demon. I started with Curse of the Demon, loved it, and then started Night of the Demon to discover that they’re actually the same movie, only with Curse of the Demon being edited down by about fifteen minutes. I didn’t leave Curse of the Demon in confusion or anything so I didn’t feel the need to re-watch Night of the Demon, though now that I write this a few weeks later maybe I should have. Any way - be warned if you’re checking it out. They are the same movie.
Some have defined this film as existential horror. I’d agree with that. It plays like Film Noir meets a Fellini film. After the mysterious death of Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), his colleague John Holden (Dana Andrews) ventures to London to investigate. There he finds Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) who's rumored to have started a cult and been involved in Harrington's death. In a creepy scene between the two men, Karswell dresses as a clown and entertains the local town children. Karswell ends the ceremony by seemingly calling in a rainstorm, which Holden views as a coincidence. As the investigation continues, Karwell predicts that Holden will die in three days. Soon Holden discovers a strange piece of parchment paper in his pocket, containing runic inscriptions, planted by Karswell and containing a curse. Holden begins to experience strange paranormal hallucinations, taking the form of a terrifying demon that’s chasing him down. The story explores the depths of paranoia and skepticism, told with a mild magical realism style, usually reserved for art house pictures from the period.
Director Jacques Tourneur was the Roman Polanski of the 50s. A master of tone, he directed such films as Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), all of which paint a very distinct feel from the very first frame. Yet even comparing him to present day horror maestros is an understatement. He was an expert director who used horror to explore deep philosophical themes. Beneath all of the movies is a feeling of loss and alienation. Out of the Past best provides this with its strict Film Noir style and existential tone, though all of his films bear some degree of this same ominous mood. The lead characters are all downtrodden, wandering through life and trying to find some meaning of it all. If only more horror films took on such heavy handed material within such an accessible genre.
I’ll have to rewatch Night of the Demon next year. I have a feeling those fifteen minutes provide the meat that will tie it all together. I’m betting it was all of philosophical fluff that studios would be quick to cut. Viewers beware. It’s not the ‘Double Feature’ it’s billed to be.
BELOW: The film's creepy opening scene, which should be enough to hook you right in
Director: Kurt Neumann
Writer: James Clavell
Cinematographer: Karl Struss
by Susan Bartley
The Fly opens up with scientist Andrew Delambre (Davis Hedison) having been murdered with his frantic wife Helene (Patrician Owens) appearing in some way responsible. Al’s brother Francois (Vincent Price) arrives and works with the police to piece together the mystery. In flashback, we learn that Al had created a teleportation machine which worked by breaking objects into tiny microscopic pieces and transferring them through some type of energy apparatus. However, during Andrew's experiments, Helene discovers that when moving a yellow plate, the brand name's letters on the back became rearranged. Al ignores these warning signs and decides to experiment with animals and eventually himself. However, a fly enters the machine and the two become infused.
Given Cronenberg’s successful reimagining, I figured there had to be something strangely sexual, violent, or cerebral about the initial film; something a bit off and disorienting in a progressive sort of way. There are moments - Helene's descent into madness as she realizes that her husband is going insane, Francois’s strange and eerie attraction to her even though his brother just passed, the hysteria and schizophrenic attitude Al develops after morphing into his half-fly body. All of these moments are interesting when considered generally, they’re just not explored all that much in the film. Like Frankenstein (1931), there is an obsessive component to the story, but it in no way approaches the madness of Dr. Frankenstein.
Overall, the effects are awful, and I mean awful. If the film was black and white it could have been pulled off as the color cheapens the poor set design. The mask alone, while iconic, is awful, immediately pulling you out of the story. For what was a recommended rating of 4/5 on Netflix I just didn’t get it. Perhaps if there wasn’t so much history to the story I could have appreciated it, or maybe if I randomly discovered it like other sci-fi B-films then I would have enjoyed it more. It just takes too long for what we know is about to happen and when it happens I was left wanting more.
BELOW: A fan made music video of 'Mogwai's - Killing All the Flies' edited with footage from The Fly (1958), which is probably the best way to get a taste of how cheap the movie feels
Thoughts on films, old and new
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