Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Noir City XVIII #7: Once Upon A Time in Mexico

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

The last Saturday of Noir City sent us south of the border and deep into Mexican Noir. Four movies were presented, directed by the "three pillars of Mexican cinema," Julio Bracho, Emilio Fernandez and Roberto Gavaldón. Explaining the significance of each of these directors was Mexican film historian and preservationist Daniela Michel. Before each film, she spoke about the actors and the filmmakers. She also pointed out that Mexican noir existed in parallel with American noir, as evidenced by our first feature being made in 1943.

Distinto amanecer (Another Dawn) occupied the top half of our Julio Bracho double bill. Octavio (Pedro Armendáriz) plays a union organizer who has incriminating papers on a very famous politician. The guy doesn't take too kindly to a potential exposé, so he has Octavio tailed by a hat-and-sunglasses-wearing "energy inspector" who looks like Father Guido Sarducci's older brother. Eventually, Father Sarducci's bro follows Octavio to the apartment of Julieta (Andrea Palma, who reminds one of Marlene Dietrich). She's Octavio's former flame and she's also married to someone else, a civil servant named Ignacio (Alberto Galán). Octavio and Ignacio have a history, but let's not go into that here. Instead, let's focus on that "energy inspector."

Julieta notices he's following Octavio and her at a movie theater. The theater is showing a film with a catchy song that seems to never end. As that song drones on, Bracho creates a Hitchcockian level of suspense. The inspector seems to know their every move, showing up repeatedly and even telling his cohorts that Octavio is hiding in the ladies' room. (Those henchmen are pretty stupid, opting not to follow Octavio through a security exit simply because someone tells them they can't exit there.) Thinking they've ditched their tail, Julieta is surprised to find him at her doorstep holding a bag of scones.

The duo tie him up. Throughout, the inspector very convincingly begs for his life, mentioning that he has a wife. When Octavio briefly steps out, he leaves his gun with Julieta. Soon, the inspector manages to free himself and winds up being shot dead by Julieta. One of the numerous plots driving this picture involves disposing of the body. This too is presented with a good amount of suspense.

Distinto amanecer has too much going on for a brief summary, but like many other films in this year's lineup, it casts an accusing eye on a corrupt agency and proceeds to criticize it in the strongest terms possible. I spent so much time on the inspector character here because the movie never recovers after he's bumped off. Things just aren't as intriguing, even if the story remains watchable. However, Bracho provides a bittersweet payoff of sorts when the inspector's wife shows up at Julieta's house looking for him. She muddies the water by saying he was an actual inspector. Then she eats the scones that were probably intended for her anyway. I was left wondering if the guy were simply a cog in that corrupt political machine forced to use his actual job as a front. Or perhaps he was just as evil as he seemed initially, and his poor wife was clueless about his shenanigans. I admit that this is all tangential to the protagonists' story, but sometimes the side streets are just as interesting as the main roads here in Noir City.

Our tour through the day now takes us to twilight. Bracho's Crepusculo (Twilight) is a twisty, flashback filled tale of obsession featuring absolutely zero occurrences of sparkly vampires or Kristen Stewart. This Twilight concerns a surgeon consumed with guilt over a failed operation. Dr. Mangino (Arturo de Córdova) is so wrapped up in the issue that he's written a book about it called, you guessed it, Twilight. Expect lots of gorgeous shots of the titular event courtesy of the very prolific cinematographer, Alex Phillips.

Dr. Mangino first sees the object of his affection, the gorgeous Lucia (Gloria Marín), at a moment where she is literally being objectified. He walks into a sculpting class where she's the model. Phillips, Marín and Bracho beautifully play up the sensual aspect of this sequence, flirting with nudity while a simulated rapture crosses Lucia's face. In that moment, we're placed inside Mangino's obsession and we feel his euphoria, and the two fall into a romance interrupted by the doctor's fame and traveling engagements. Later, when Lucia discovers that Mangino has one of the sculptures, she comments that he's still managed to possess her even though she's now married to his brother, Ricardo.

If coming home to find your obsession is now your sister-in-law isn't bad enough, imagine now having her sister lusting after you. This love square can only end badly, and Crepusculo drops a few bombshell hints early on that it will not. For starters, Lucia mentions that Ricardo is dead and Dr. Mangino is no longer practicing surgery (instead he's teaching his book). Through flashbacks and eerie dream sequences, we learn the entire story and it's more than a bit soapy and melodramatic. But you'll get no complaints here--this is my kinda stew--and even if you find the proceedings a bit unbelievable, the atmosphere created by Crepusculo will still draw you in. Watching it feels like slowly drowning in a dense fog of dangerous desire, hoping for it to clear just long enough for you to catch your breath.

As night fell on Noir City, the evening double bill opened with the appropriately titled La Noche Avanza (Night Falls). Reuniting us with Pedro Armendáriz, Roberto Gavaldón's 1952 feature was the most noirish of the four Mexican noirs. Matinee idol Armendáriz is fantastic as Marcos, a jai alai player who, to quote Eddie's introduction, is "a real shitheel." The Czar of Noir was being polite. Marcos is one of the most hissable villains to ever delight us denizens of Noir City. The man kicks a dog who dares walk too close to his fancy car, for cripe's sake! Don't worry! The dog gets his revenge in one of the most gonzo final acts I've ever seen. 

Marcos' jai alai prowess comes with a heaping side of braggadocio and an extra helping of cruelty. He torments his teammates and treats the women he's involved with like dirt. The women include his latest flame, Sara (Anita Blanch), his older, rich lover Lucrecia (Eva Martino) and, most troublingly, the teenaged Rebeca (Rebeca Iturbide) whose adolescent longings Marcos horribly manipulates. However, Rebeca is the biggest thorn in Marcos' side and the potential key to his downfall. She owns some scandalous information that she uses in the hopes that Marcos will marry her. Knowing this, Marcos appeals to the patriarchial hierarchy represented by Rebeca's powerful father. These scenes are damning indictments of how men saw women as toys to be played with, then discarded.

La Noche Avanza invites you to bear unflinching witness to its anti-hero, but you can sense an undercurrent of contempt as if the movie, like the audience, is quivering with anticipation to see Marcos get his. Nowhere is this more evident than in its final 20 minutes; the film simultaneously tightens the screws of suspense while going completely off the rails plotwise. Gavaldón and the fearless Armendáriz play the audience like a violin, eliciting gasps and applause in the process. Just when it looks like Marcos' sinister plans will pay off for him, the film reveals the ultimate surprise as justice is meted out in the coldest way possible. Indeed, the darkest hour is just before dawn here in Noir City. 

Last, but certainly not least is a prime example of Mexican cabaretera courtesy of Emilio Fernandez. He's been here before; Noir City XIV showed his cabaretera Victimas del Pecado, a film that elicited the biggest bout of applause I've heard at any Noir City I've attended. Salón Mexico tells a similar story--par for the genre--of a woman who goes to extreme lengths to protect and support a family member. She must work in a dancehall/cabaret, a shameful profession that guarantees the movie will have some killer musical numbers, and she will suffer as only the best martyrs can to ensure her familial goal will be met. As a kid, I called this type of movie "Stella Dallas movies" because that was the first film I'd ever seen like this. 

Of course, more than dancing is going on at this dancehall. The protagonists of these films is usually the "hooker with the heart of gold" whose honor is defended by her own strength and the occasional devotion of a nice guy. Here, Mercedes (an excellent Marga Lopez) is putting the sister she has raised since their parents' died through a fancy private school so that she can avoid the struggles that will befall her without an education. As the film opens, Mercedes enters a dance contest with her pimp Paco (Rodolfo Acosta). She needs the money for this month's tuition. When Paco keeps the dough instead, Mercedes steals it back, an example of her take charge nature and refusal to be a victim. 

Mercedes will face trial after trial before the end credits, and she'll work through them as best she can while earning the audience's hope that she succeeds. Looking after her is a kindly widowed police officer, Lupe (Miguel Inclán), who is in love with her but can't help her out of her situation financially. He becomes a guardian angel, which makes the viewer assume that he'll buy the farm in the movie's ultimate injection of darkness. What actually happens is far, far worse. Paco gets involved in criminal activity, dragging Mercedes into it with dire results. Meanwhile, her clueless, ungrateful brat of a sister whines that Big Sis won't come to her damn school plays!

Mercedes achieves her goals, but this is no happy ending. It's bittersweet at best. As much as I like these movies, and the "weepies" Hollywood churned out, I never held much affection for the people the protagonist sacrified themselves to save. As a kid, I wanted Barbara Stanwyck to bang on that window and explain everything, and on Saturday night I wanted Mercedes to beat her sister's ass while yelling "do you know the mierda I've been through for your trifling behind?!!" Alas, Noir City isn't about what I want, it's about what I need. And this year's slate of International Noirs fit that bill. 

See you next year!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Noir City XVIII #6: The Devil Is In the Details

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Cinematography is my favorite aspect of a movie. Noir cin-tog ranks high on my list of the cinematic things I love. Color may be in fashion, but nothing gets me going like crisp, silvery, shadowy and sinister black and white. Thankfully, Noir City is full of this kind of imagery as evidenced by the two films covered in this dispatch. One is from Japan, the other from Germany, and they were both presented in 35mm prints that looked handed down personally by God. I've had the privilege to visit both countries (and ich spreche Deutsch, believe it or not), but never like the protagonists of this duo. 

Let's start in Japan.

Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 classic Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana) combines the popular yakuza-style films popular with audiences with a love story that's so ice-cold it's actually hot. The two "lovers" never consummate their relationship--they don't even kiss--and yet every frame they share together smolders intensely. To use the purple phrase that adorned more than one pulp novel's front cover, these two are "addicted to thrills!" The result is truly hypnotic, thanks to Shinoda, his editor Yoshi Sugihara, his sound department and the movie's MVP, cinematographer Masao Kosugi. 

Kosugi's camera loves the lead actress, Mariko Kaga, specifically her gaze. She stares silently out into the distance and her stillness evokes a series of sometimes contradictory responses. Is she reflecting evil? Boredom? Lust? Vengeance? Sadness? Or is she simply just existing from moment to moment, riding the ebb and flow of life by instinct and without contemplation? Whatever she's up to, she looks into the ether (and by extension, at us) with full knowledge of the secrets she's keeping. That aura of mystery propels the narrative and the interplay between her and Muraki (Ryô Ikebe). 

Kaga plays Saeko, which, I kid you not, is pronounced psycho. Muraki first encounters her at a gambling den where his return is warmly received. Muraki has just been released from prison after serving time for killing a rival. The crime world to which he returns looks nothing like the one he left; opposing factions are now allies and Muraki feels like a samurai without a master. Even the moll who has waited loyally for him has lost her appeal. This ronin's journey feels aimless until he meets Saeko.

Shinoda sets several scenes in the gambling den, using the croupier's incessant, rhythmic chanting as a hypnotist's tool. The sound lulls us into the seductive world of playing games for cash. Even though there's no explanation of the rules of the game, it doesn't matter. This is all about mood and sensual response. Saeko is a high-roller, a rarity for a woman in these places, and she's fearless even when losing her shirt. Nothing fazes her. She doesn't even have that "I'll win my money back next time!" vibe that most gamblers vibrate with when they're losing. Saeko is so chill she puts the laissez in laissez-faire

Of course, this intrigues Muraki. The sense of danger and the unknown cements his involvement with Saeko. She drives a fast car recklessly and laughs constantly as the adrenaline rush consumes her. Meanwhile, in the background of this tale of l'amour fou is a subplot that potentially offers Muraki a return to his assassin ways, in a sense giving him an expected purpose. 

All this is presented in a cool, matter-of-fact fashion that's surprisingly sparse. Eddie Muller called this "an existential noir" and that's the best description of this gorgeous must-see. While you're at it, check out the story of actor Ikebe. It's fascinating, and once you know it, you'll understand how deeply entrenched he is in portraying his character's knowledge of failure and loss.

Robert Siodmak is a staple of Noir City, a man Czar of Noir Eddie Muller considers the foremost purveyor of film noir. Though he worked in Hollywood, and was born in Memphis, Siodmak was the son of Germans who took him back to be raised in Germany. Siodmak made his bones in Paris and Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis, but in 1957 he returned to his homeland to make The Devil Strikes at Night, a movie whose serial killer plotline serves as an entry point into a pessimistic tale of totalitarianism.

Siodmak's film feels like an encapsulation of all the themes and tropes we've seen here in Noir City 18--groupthink, high-level corruption, low-level scapegoats, etc. The trait most specifically seen here is the timeliness of the tale--it's as if these films are elder statesmen speaking to us from the depths of an earlier time to implore that we not allow history to repeat itself. The government cover up presented here looked eerily similar to what's going on here in America right now. It's surreal that this was the film that ran on Friday evening, considering what had happened earlier in the day.

Devil is based on the true story of Bruno Lüdke, an alleged serial killer played here by Mario Adorf. Lüdke may have murdered 51 people between 1933 and 1944, most of whom were women. We see the horrific results of his handiwork early on when he strangles a woman in a basement. Her innocent lover is charged, but Kriminalkommissar Axel Kersten (Claus Holm) doesn't believe they have the right party. Instead, he thinks this is the work of a repeat offender. Since Lüdke isn't the most careful of killers, he's eventually caught. The movie is half over when he is.

What happens next is what makes this film so urgently important today. Lüdke's capture after a decade long killing spree flies in the face of the image the German government wants to project about itself and its "pure" Aryan citizens, all of whom are supposed to be too perfect to ever be wrong or corruptible. Lüdke's existence presents a hellish Catch-22 of nationalistic idiocy: Germans like him aren't supposed to exist and the federal police are so good that they would have immediately caught him had he existed. A scapegoat is necessary to save face while Lüdke somehow needs to get swept under the rug.

Aided immeasurably by his cinematographer, Georg Krause, Siodmak presents some of the most harrowing visuals of this year's festival, putting this right up there with the earlier Czech film ...and the Fifth Horseman is Fear. There's a masterful flashback sequence that puts us in a murderer's mind and several Hitchcockian touches that up the suspense while not undercutting the suffocating pessimism that infuses every minute. The film's final line and image really hammers that feeling home. As I said before, noir is one of the genres often imbued with allegory. Couple that with the standard cautionary tale characteristics and you occasionally get a terrifying warning like The Devil Strikes at Night. The even scarier question is: Will we listen?

Next time: Closing things out with Mexican Noir
Last time: To the Victor go the spoils

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Noir City XVIII #5: To the Victor Go the Spoils

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

It's tradition that I get a picture with the Noir City Poster Dame every year. I make sure I'm dressed up on the day I anticipate I'll have my shot. On Friday, I shall once again be in full Noir Attire as I eagerly await receiving a signed poster from this year's star, Ms. Victoria Mature! Yes, she's the daughter of Noir City regular (and one of my Mom's childhood crushes), Victor Mature. English noir night kicked off with a great mini-movie featuring Ms. Mature opposite her dad (through the magic of cinema, of course). It opened with the soon-to-be-long-lamented 20th Century-Fox logo and fanfare and ended with a cliffhanger they better resolve between now and Sunday!

Before a strikingly beautiful 35mm print of Mature's 1957 trucker thriller The Long Haul unspooled, Ms. Mature told some great stories about her Dad. She also sang a song from one of his films. We denizens of Noir City also belted out a familiar ditty: We all sang Happy Birthday to Victor Mature on what would have been his 107th birthday. Lest I forget, Ms. Mature repeated one of Papa Mature's most famous anecdotes and no, I'm not going to repeat it. You shoulda been there to hear it yourself!

The last time the Matures visited Noir City, it was for the Noir City XVI screening of I Wake Up Screaming. You can find my piece on that (and more pics of Victoria Mature) right here. This time, Mr. Mature plays Harry Miller, an American ex-pat who longs to return to the good ol' USA after his stint in the military. His Liverpudlian wife, Connie (Gene Anderson) however, doesn't want to go back despite a cushy job awaiting her husband. She'd rather take their son to spend a few months in her hometown. To sweeten the deal, she tells Harry that her Uncle Casey has a trucking job he can do to make ends meet while he's trapped in the Beatles' hometown. "I'm going from working for Uncle Sam to working for Uncle Casey," says Harry. 

In the pantheon of uncle types, Uncle Casey is the Corrupt Uncle. And he's not the only family member whose actions remind us that one should never work with family. The trucking company that employs Uncle Casey also gave a job to the corrupt brother of this film's femme fatale, Lynn. Lynn is portrayed by an uber-blonde and uber-hot Diana Dors. She's the moll of company boss Joe Easy (Patrick Allen), a man whose name just screams "noir villain."

When Harry busts up some guys trying to steal contraband from Uncle Casey's truck, he discovers that Uncle Casey is in on the take. And since the fish stinks from the head, Joe Easy is also in on the fraudulent and felonious activities. Easy is also quite abusive to Lynn, leading her to run off with Harry in his truck en route to Scotland. When they have to stop at a hotel for the night, director Ken Hughes directs the sequence with maximum suspense and sexual tension. One look at vulnerable Lynn and Harry's a goner.

Harry marital fidelity isn't the only thing that's gone with the wind--so is his entire truck! Sensing that he's been, um, had by Lynn, he storms right off into unemployment. Nobody will hire him to drive, and nobody will insure him if he is hired. Nobody, that is, except Joe Easy, who not only was behind the truck theft, but also has a bigger, more dangerous shipping deal for Harry. If he drives a truckload of stolen furs through treacherous territory to a boat headed for America, he can have a free ticket to ride home. Harry turns it down, at first, but you just know he's gonna have to drive that truck sooner or later. 

Considering his name, you'd think Joe would like to do things nice and easy. But it's apparent early on that Joe never ever does anything nice and easy. He does it nice and rough, two words to explain the scenes of Harry driving that huge truck through situations that evoke memories of The Wages of Fear. Fur doesn't explode, but enough of it is capable of crushing a man flatter than a pancake. Had Hughes directed his 1968 feature Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the relentlessness he applies to the fur truck heist, Dick van Dyke wouldn't have gotten out of that car alive.

I was a bit surprised by how The Long Haul handles Harry's adultery. Connie quickly finds out and confronts her husband. Later, when she meets Lynn under the worst of circumstances, she takes a swing at her. As the man in this triangle, Mature gives a great, conflicted performance. He's tough, tender and, by film's end, resigned to the cruel fate we've come to expect in Noir City. Dors is also quite good here. Her last scene culminates in a sad lament rather than a hot bullet. 

The only person who gets a happy ending is the guy awaiting the hot furs. 'Tis bitter irony indeed!

Before he was Quilty, Dr. Strangelove, Chauncey Gardiner and Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers was Lionel Meadows, owner of a chop shop fronting as a legitimate car business. And he was evil! You've never seen Sellers like this--he's so vile in 1960's Never Let Go that he made me think of Ben Kingsley's brilliant turn in Sexy Beast. Sellers isn't as good as Kingsley, but it's equally shocking to see him turn to the dark side with reckless abandon. Meadows is a rapist, an animal killer and doesn't mind using a broken bottle to go after anyone who pisses him off.

This nasty piece of work gets entangled with John Cummings (Richard Todd), a salesman for a beauty company whose car was nicked by one of Meadows' minions early in the film. Cummings' car is the key to his future success--or so he thinks. The guy is a rather incompetent dreamer who never sees things through and expects the world to bend to his mediocrity. Cummings becomes obsessed with getting his car back by any means necessary. Even after Meadows causes one witness to commit suicide, breaks into Cummings' house and menaces his family, beats him to a pulp and repeatedly threatens him, Cummings keeps coming back like a bad slasher movie killer. You almost expect him to yell "DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR!?" as he breaks into Meadows' garage.

And it's an ugly car! Good Lord! It's so ugly, Cummings doesn't even have it insured for theft. So unless the cops get it back, he's gonna spend years paying for a car he doesn't own. Of course, he can't make those payments if he's dead, but that's not going to stop this fool. While it's actually quite fun watching Todd adamantly portray his character's obsessions, I secretly rooted for him to get his ass kicked right out of the screen. Director John Guillermin seems to have some affection for single-minded beasts of burden--he directed the 1976 version of King Kong--and that sympathy leads Never Let Go to end on a hopeful note that I'm not sure it deserved. Still, Sellers is the selling point here. He keeps the tension ratcheted up to insane levels, pulling us through the type of ringer we just love getting squeezed through here in Noir City.

A few quick words on the second feature of Czech Noir night, 90 Degrees in the Shade. This British-Czech production directed by Jiri Weiss was made with the same actors in two versions, one English and one Czech. We witnessed the English version starring Anne Heywood as a woman involved in an illicit affair with her boss. When a new auditor shows up to take inventory of the store, we slowly learn that Heywood and her sleazy lover are involved in a messy plan to make cash by selling expensive booze and swindling their parent company. Despite being the star of nunsploitaion movies (and naked in this one), Heywood is easily upstaged by Czech actor Rudolf Hrusínský as the auditor. He's the most interesting character in the film, and Weiss gives us a lot more of his backstory than one would expect. He even teases that Heywood might give this rather homely looking man something far stronger than a drink. 

The story wobbles back and forth between past and present, and while the tale of the corrupt lovers fits the noir bill, I kept wanting to see more of Hrusinsky and his process. He's intimidating in a Columbo kind of way--he knows they did it but he can't yet put his finger on how--and I found my attention waning a bit when he was offscreen. It's rare that I'd choose the geeky dude over the femme fatale, but that's the direction the liquor poured from the flask here in Noir City. 

Next time: Japan and Germany Do the Noir Thing
Last time: Buona Boring, Mr. Antonioni

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Noir City XVIII #4: Ennui, from the Latin for BORING

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Just before the first feature on Italian Noir night, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller described acclaimed director Michelangelo Antonioni's take on Story of a Love Affair by saying something to the effect of "he's more concerned with the ennui of these people than actually telling the story." I'm paraphrasing, but the Czar certainly used the word ennui. It's one of my two favorite privilege signifiers; the other is eccentric. I'd never forget any mention of either.

How is it a "privilege signifier?" Well, have you ever heard anybody with no money suffering from ennui or described as eccentric? Nope. If you're rich and crazy, you're eccentric. If you're poor and crazy, you're just batshit. And if you're hustling to make ends meet, as many of the characters who populate Noir City are, you ain't got time for what Oxford defines as a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. 

Alas, the characters in Antonioni's 1950 debut are infused with ennui and the director most definitely isn't interested in focusing on the noirish bonafides of his story. I have stated before that I am not a fan of Antonioni's work at all. The only joy I've ever gleaned from his watching-paint-dry oeuvre is the montage of exploding imagery in Zabriskie Point and the super-cool way Jack Nicholson said "Antonioni" in this clip of the director receiving his Honorary Oscar. In fact, I was going to use Italian noir night as the "get out of Noir City free" card I always save for one day every festival, but I was told that this was Antonioni before he was, well, Antonioni. Admittedly, I was intrigued! Like many a man in the noir movies I adore, I was a damn fool!

Though the story has echoes of The Postman Always Rings Twice, there isn't a moment in Story of a Love Affair that crackles with the electricity of the moment Lana Turner drops her lipstick and the camera gets a shot of her legs. Hell, there isn't even a glint of the 80's era absurdity soaking the remake that starred the aforemented Mr. Nicholson. At some point, we can assume that Paola (Lucia Bose) will not-so-subtly hint that former (and current) lover Guido (Massimo Girotti) should off the husband who stands between them and sheer bliss. It's even implied that, back in the day, she literally gave the shaft to her prior competitor for Guido's affections. The guy investigating that mysterious death by elevator looms in the background, as if waiting for Paola to slip up and commit another crime of passion. 

We're waiting too. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. "Look lady! Just ask the man to kill yo' huzzband already!!" I wanted to shout as the ninth hour of this movie rolled along. "I got laundry to do!" Instead, we're trapped in Paola's Ennui, which sounds like a perfume that smells of the itchy feet John Garfield kept mentioning in Postman. The movie looks like the commercial for that fragrance, which isn't a criticism to be honest. Not even I can dispute Antonioni's visuals. But by the time the film crawls to as ending that's far more anti-climactic than ironic, I was wondering if SCTV had ever done a parody of it. 

During his introduction to the first feature of Czech Noir night, Eddie mentioned another director with whom I have a long history of dislike, David Lynch. However, Lynch has made two movies that I've put on my ten best of the year lists AND he managed to fool me into watching one-and-a-half seasons of Twin Peaks. Lynch is many things but he is certainly not boring. Nor is ...And the Fifth Horseman is Fear, director Zbynêk Brynych's very political and exceptionally harrowing tale of Nazi-era paranoia set in a sprawling yet claustrophobic apartment building. It's a perfect fit for this year's festival; the groupthink-led tragedy of Brynych's film has a kindred spirit in Panique, and the director's masterful use of the geography of a building is eerily reminiscent of The Housemaid.

This film's allegorical bonafides are aces. It makes no attempt to be period-accurate, opting instead to fool the Iron Curtain censors of the time by constantly making reference to Nazi occupation. However, any viewer watching in 1965 saw right through that ruse and knew immediately that Brynych was conducting a contemporary dissection of life in his country. 

Miroslav Machácek plays docent Brown who, against his better judgment, helps a man who has been mysteriously shot. His neighbors include a kid who seems to be everywhere, a family with a maid, an excitable old lady with a dog and Fanta (Josef Vinklár), whose mousy appearance hides the potential danger that he's an informer, especially when he inadvertently witnessed the mysterious man with Brown.

...And the Fifth Horseman is Fear launches an unrelenting sensory assault on the viewer. There's a well-edited chaos to many scenes, most notably when sinister government officials invade the building looking for any signs of dissent. The sound design, and the nerve-shredding musical score, are invaluable assets to the film's ability to disturb. Folks who thought this year's Uncut Gems dragged them through the ringer should give this a look to see what true relentlessness looks like. A classic of the same Czech New Wave that first brought Milos Forman to audiences' attention, ...And the Fifth Horseman is Fear is a must-see. And that title is just brilliant.

Next time: More Czech Cinema and Evil Inspector Clouseau
Last time: Evil Maid, Bonkers Movie

Monday, January 27, 2020

Noir City XVIII #3: Everybody Ought to Have A Maid...Except SOME People

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

There's a broken heart for every light on Broadway, and a cautionary tale for every busted corner streetlight in Noir City. Lucky for us denizens, our antiheroes never learn their lessons and are thereby doomed to repeat them: They pick the wrong pocket, rob the wrong joint, stare at the wrong anklet and trust the wrong people. And boy howdy, do they pay for it! They get what's comin' to 'em! And if they're lucky, Barton Keyes delivers their eulogy while lighting their cigarette.

It's such sweet schadenfreude!

Not only did Sunday bring us a double feature of South Korean noir, it brought what is easily the most entertainingly bonkers movie I've seen at this festival since Eddie showed Robert Siodmak's 1942 kitchen-sink classic, Fly-By-Night. That remains the most fun I've ever had watching a movie at Noir City. But now we have a competitor for that title in Kim Ki-young's 1960 film The Housemaid.  This movie has everything! Poison! Murder! Adultery! Young Lust! Old Stupidity! Sewing Machine Exhaustion! Dangerous staircases! Piano Lessons! Greed! Class Warfare! Obnoxious Little Brat Boys! Smart, Wily Little Girls! Horror Movie Jump Scares! Juicy Mel-o-DRAMA!!

And of course, a very, very, very, VERY bad maid.

One could draw parallels between The Housemaid and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Fatal Attraction or any number of other thrillers featuring an individual who wreaks havoc on protagonists who aren't as blameless as they seem. But watching this rightfully classified masterpiece of Korean cinema, I thought of a cross between the middle class "woe is me" of Albert Brooks' Lost in America with the ever-escalating, pitch-black comic transgressions of Danny De Vito's The War of the Roses. As Hyun Jin Cho pointed out in her intro, the Korean middle class was taking shape and rising in 1960, and director Kim Ki-young's unsparing take on their desire to keep up with the Joneses caused a lot of moviegoers' jaws to drop. She mentioned that moviegoers were yelling "KILL THE HOUSEMAID!" at the screen. You might question some of those notions while watching.

It's best to go into this film blind. I'll keep the description brief. A married couple, Mr. Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) and his wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) have moved into a new house they can barely afford. They have two children, a bratty little boy and a sensitive, yet very astute daughter who needs crutches to get around. Mrs. Kim is a seamstress who seems to be sewing the exact same piece of material for the entire movie, and Mr. Kim gives piano and music lessons to female clientele who work with him at the factory. Of course, some of the women in his music class develop crushes on the older man, but he is quite adamant in resisting them.

Enter Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), a young woman with pigtails that reminded me of Pippi Longstocking and every Black girl I've ever known in my life. For reasons way too complicated (and revealing) to go into here, Myung-sook becomes the live-in maid. The Kims can barely afford to make ends meet, but as Sondheim famously wrote, everybody ought to have a maid. Sondheim didn't mean the kind of maid Myung-sook becomes, but I guarantee you his dark sensibilities would have appreciated her efforts.

Bad things happen whenever Myung-sook is around. And Kim ki-Young gets maximum mileage out of placing his camera in the house's kitchen cabinets, especially the one that has a strategically placed box of rat poisin in it. (The rat poison gets more screen time than many of the secondary characters.) Things get progressively worse, and then the characters start making decisions that would definitely get you talking to the screen in less than polite company. The screws really tighten on the viewer, to the point where you lean forward in your seat to make sure you're seeing what you're seeing. 

It's such sweet schadenfreude!

To say more would be criminal. Instead, I'll quote Sondheim again: The Housemaid has "something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone." 

Noir City regular Jean Gabin got a double feature during Saturday's day of French noir, The matinee film, Razzia, finds him efficiently and ruthlessly supervising the drug trade in Paris. This being 1955, Hollywood wouldn't have touched this narcotics-based plotline, let alone had one of its biggest stars oversee it. Eddie Muller compared Gabin's casting to Jimmy Stewart being cast as a drug boss which, of course, had me immediately envisioning a machine-gun holding Stewart yelling "uh, say hello to m-my little FRIEND!" from behind a moutain of cocaine. 

Gabin has always reminded me of Robert Mitchum, and that stoic Mitchum presence is on full display here. He watches stone-faced as some really messed up stuff goes down, including a very questionable sequence where future Oscar-winner Lila Kedrova visits an all-Black drug den and does anything for drugs. (Soderbergh clearly saw this picture before he presented a far more vile version of this scene in Traffik.) Gabin's star-power and his fine acting go a long way, managing to convince us he can be heartless as well as be the object of affection of a much younger woman who immediately falls for him. (Who wouldn't?)

Adding a good deal of fun in a supporting role is Lino Ventura as one half of Gabin's enforcer duo. He's tough as nails and gets to off several people before the final credits. There's more than a bit of French Connection-style atmosphere here, though of course, this precedes that movie by 16 years. 

It wouldn't be a French Noir City day without director Jean-Pierre Melville. He's represented here by Le Doulos, a crime drama I didn't find entirely successful but was still worth watching. Melville's usual honor-amongst-thieves ideas are at play here, featuring Breathless' Jean-Paul Belmondo and future painter and singer Serge Reggiani. With the idea of long tracking shots currently in vogue due to Sam Mendes' lackluster 1917, I should point out that this film opens with a very nice long shot of Reggiani walking (and walking and walking) under bridges and on the street while the opening credits roll. 

For at least an hour, Le Doulos does not make ONE LICK OF SENSE. Eventually, things coalesce, but your patience may have long run out before then. There are a lot of double-crosses and people come and go without much explanation. There's also a lot of testoterone soaking the screen here, and the women don't fare very well at all. One unlucky lady is brutalized for a very long time onscreen, which some member of our audience found amusing enough to laugh out loud. Usually, the audiences here are respectful and very much into the films, but on occasion, we have the type of NYC art theater idiot I come to this festival to escape from every January. While I realize this isn't the nicest way to end a dispatch, it is what it is. I hope I don't have to do this again.

Next time: Will I Make My Peace With Boring Ass Antonioni?
Last time: Panic at the Festival

Noir City XVIII #2: At This Point I'm What The French Call de trop

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Saturdays in Noir City have always been an endurance test for the faithful. Nowadays, there are two movies at the matinee, two in the evenings. It can be as exhiliarating as it is exhausting. And yet, I've been around these parts long enough to remember when there were five movies on Saturdays. I shall not complain about this rare bit of mercy bestowed from above by the powers that be; it's the only bit of mercy I'll be talking about today.

Last time, I said there was nothing new under the Sun. Nowhere is that more evident than here in Noir City, where themes that were presented 50, 60, or even 70 years ago feel as timely now as they did back then. This is especially true of films where a mob mentality provides the requisite levels of darkness we expect from this festival. We've seen it before in prior entries like Fury, The Well and the film that, coincidentally, ran on TCM's Noir Alley Saturday night, Try and Get Me. Several hours before that excellent film hit the tee-vee, the Castro Theatre projected Julien Duvivier's panic-filled Panique.

Duvivier, the much-respected writer-director of such classics as Pepe Le Moko, teams up with French acting legend Michel Simon to craft a heartbreaking tale of an oddball neighbor falsely accused of murder. For the source material of the first film he made after returning to France from Hollywood, Duvivier chose Mr. Hire's Engagement, a novel by prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. Simon plays the titular character, a bearded, antisocial man who likes his butchered meat bloody and his social interactions salty. His small town neighbors dislike him intensely, and the feeling is mutual. But he pays his rent on time and appears to be more eccentric than dangerous.

Everyone's perspective on Mssr. Hire changes when a woman is murdered. Duvivier tips his hand vis-a-vis how he'll visually handle the subject of mob mentality in this early scene. Practically the entire town stops to gawk at the dead woman's body, crowding it so much that the police worry that evidence may be compromised. Unlike Mssr. Hire, the victim was considered harmless, perhaps even respectable. Gossip starts to spread, but for now, cooler heads prevail.

Meanwhile, the actual murderer is being reunited with his lover Alice (the awesomely named Vivienne Romance). Alice is truly ride or die, to use that old hip-hop standby phrase--she just did a four year bid for her man. Honestly, I thought this guy was a slimy heel who didn't even look hot enough to do time for, but I digress. If you want to know why she did it, go ask Alice.

Speaking of asking Alice, Mssr. Hire awkwardly propositions her for a date. He's been watching her from his window and she's seen him doing so. He gives her the creeps, but eventually she acquiesces when her man devises a plan to frame Hire for the murder. Alice will string him along like a lovesick puppy before planting evidence in his apartment linking him to the crime.

What's most interesting about the dynamics of the Hire-Alice "romance" is that Panique doesn't make Hire a completely innocent bystander; he uses a bit of almost-blackmail to worm his way into his object of affection's good graces. Hire reveals early on that he knows Alice's lover did the murder and he uses that as a leverage point. Hire could simply turn this evidence in to the police but he doesn't because he believes it's the only way to get such a beautiful femme fatale to fall for him. In that regard, Mssr. Hire is guilty, but the resulting punishment doesn't fit the crime.

Also intriguing is how, for a time, Mssr. Hire seems to be ahead of the bad guy. He has a sense of criminal behavior more akin to an Agatha Christie detective than a socially awkward misfit who, in his words, "sells hope" to people under the guise of a fortune teller. When he's accosted by Alice's man, Hire not only outsmarts him, he physically humiliates him. There's more under the surface than we're originally led to believe, and Simon and Duvivier have fun peeling back the layers for us.

There's also more under the surface of the movie itself. Like science fiction and horror, noir has often been used for allegorical purposes. Here, Duvivier was making a thinly-veiled statement about how Nazi-inspired fear and paranoia affected many of his compatriots during WWII. The veil was so thin that Panique caused an uproar when released in 1946, almost derailing Duvivier's career. 

When the townsfolk are finally whipped into a frenzy, partially by gossip but mostly by a self-righteous desire to oust Mssr. Hire by any means necessary, Panique becomes truly unsettling. By this time, we've learned a lot more about the doomed party, how he became so misanthropic and that his lovesickness is truly genuine, and we start to feel for him in much the same manner Alice does. But unlike Alice, we're not ride or die, so when the time comes for her to stand up for what's right, she stays quiet when we hope she'll speak up. The end result is one of the bigger kicks to the gut I've taken here in Noir City. It made me think of the current social media climate, especially on Twitter, where the oft-misinformed court of public opinion is always presided over by a hanging judge. Like I said, nothing new under the Sun.

I'll talk about some of the other French movies from Saturday's adventure next time, as well as the most bonkers movie I've seen at Noir City in a good long while. For now, I'll close out with one of the rare Noir City movies I outright didn't like. As part of the South Korean double feature, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller showed 1964's Lee Man-Hee mobcentric crime drama Black Hair. It's an important film from the first heyday of Korean cinema during the 1960's. Hyun Jin Cho of the Korean Culture Center UK brought the DCP we viewed on Sunday with her on her flight to San Francisco the night before, and she also brought to the pre-film introductions a lot of wonderful, entertaining and informative tidbits about the directors, stars and the political atmosphere during the time these films were made. My own personal opinion should take nothing away from the historical importance of a film like Black Hair

However, I found myself curiously uninvolved here. It's not the fault of the lead actress, Moon Jung-Suk, whose protagonist carries a dignity and a grace that is fascinating to watch, nor is it with the sex workers subplot which, to my relief and astonishment, was handled with surprising respect for a film made in 1964. My problem was with the main plot itself, which relegated Moon to the background of her own story in favor of having the man who loves her and the man who wronged her both fight for her honor rather than allowing her to have a major stake in the story. Whenever she's offscreen, the film sags underneath the weight of dull mob machinations. Though there's some tenderness between hero and villain late in the film that complicates matters in an unusual fashion, and a shocking bit of gore, Black Hair ultimately didn't work for me. Even so, I'll take a daring failure in Noir City over a minor cinematic success anywhere else in the universe.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Noir City XVIII #1: Dear Diary, You'll Never Guess Who I Killed Today

 by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Noir City is back with a vengeance...an international vengeance!

The world's greatest film fetival rolls back into the Castro Theatre for another year of murderous intent, vengeful lovers, unknowing victims and delectably sinister black and white cinematography. As usual, we denizens of Noir City are ready to take that plunge into the darkness that pre-emptively promises "no happy endings." And as with Noir City XII, the lineup of films truly lives up to the festival's motto it's a bitter little world; we're gonna see how moviegoers around the world got their gigantic needle injections of noir. 

Once again, our tour guide on the journey into the heart of darkness is the Czar of Noir (and host of TCM's Noir Alley), Eddie Muller. Before he took the stage for the opening night double feature of Argentine noir, we were treated to a sexy and dangerous onstage tango, followed by this year's festival trailer by the always-great Serena Bramble. From there, Eddie was joined in his introduction by this year's Noir City Poster Dame, Victoria Mature. 

Ms. Mature's Pa, Victor, will have his day in the sun--or rather, his shot in the dark--later in the festival. Opening night was all about the country responsible for Buenos Aires and Patti LuPone's first Tony. Providing some context to the fascinating world of Argentine cinema was historian Fernando Martín Peña, the man who brought these films to Eddie's attention and who was seeing these gorgeous restorations for the first time just as we were.

The Besst Must Die (La Bestia Debe Morir) sounds like a horror movie and, until last night's premiere, it was a title I most associated with the 1974 werewolf movie starring Calvin Lockhart and Peter Cushing. Like that cheesy delight, this film is also a mystery, a whodunit whose victim really had it coming. Jorge Rattery (Guillermo Battaglia), patriarch of the Rattery clan, is a horrible excuse for a human being. He's so vile that the title is way too polite in its description--a stronger B-word is most definitely required for him. He openly flaunts his marital affairs, is abusive to the point of intolerable cruelty, is financially loaded and is surrounded by a group of yes-people who eagerly lean into and endorse his toxic masculinity. Sound like any politicians we know? 

Adding to the misery of his long-suffering wife, Violeta (Josefa Goldar) is Jorge's evil mother, listed in the IMDB credits as "Madre de Jorge" as if the utterance of her government name would turn the listener into stone. Milagros de la Vega plays her like a coiled cobra ready to strike at any moment with verbal vitriol. She spends her screen time happily torturing Violeta by pointing out her son's affairs and chiding her for not taking his abuse like a "Rattery woman" should. Jorge's Mama makes Mrs. Danvers look like Mister Rogers.

Since it's revealed early, it's no spoiler to state that someone bumps off Jorge with the old reliable noir standby, poison. Strychnine, to be exact, the first of many allusions to the word "rat" in the screenplay by Narciso Ibáñez Menta and director Román Viñoly Barreto. Strychnine is what's being used to poison the vermin in the garage of Carpax (Nathán Pinzón), one of Jorge's cronies and enablers. Carpax is there when Jorge takes his fatal swig, as are Violeta, her abused son Ronnie, Carpax's wife and Jorge's lover Rhoda (Beba Bidart) and Violeta's sister Linda (Laura Hidalgo). Linda immediately garners our suspicion when, instead of calling 911 during Jorge's death throes, she calls Felix Lane (Narciso Ibáñez Menta).

Who is Felix Lane? And what does his seemingly incriminating diary have to do with the plot? Menta has written a juicy part for himself here--Lane's a writer (real name: Frank Carter) who specializes in murder mysteries. His book titles all begin with "Murder" and are hilariously listed off in a scene where he bonds with young Ronnie. Felix Lane has a tragic secret and an unquenchable thirst for revenge. He also has the patience of a saint, carefully biding his time as he bonds with volatile actress Linda in the flashbacks that take up most of the film. Linda becomes involved with "Felix the Cat" as she calls him in order to provide a buffer between herself and the lecherous Jorge, who can't resist pawing her every single time they're in frame together. Lane goes along because Linda may hold the key to solving the mystery of his young son's brutal murder. Yes, Jorge is involved.

In his opening remarks, Peña told us that director Barreto was known for two things in his films: they start and end with Biblical quotes and they involve the death of a child. There's also much empathy for children. La Bestia Debe Morir's purest relationship is the paternal one between Ronnie and Felix, two lost souls who, for a time find kindred spirits in one another. Of course, this being noir, even that non-toxic relationship can't end happily, which is not to say it doesn't end well. For this, we can thank Nicholas Blake, the author whose book was adapted into this movie. Like Felix Lane, Nicholas Blake was also a pseudonym, this time for Cecil Day-Lewis. You may have heard of his kid, Daniel Day-Lewis, in your cinematic travels.

Speaking of Biblical quotes, La Bestia Debe Morir gets its title from that most quotable of Old Testament books, Ecclesiastes. The preacher's kid whose words you are currently reading shall now dip back into his days of holding the King James Bible to quote chapter 3, verse 19: "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other."  Ecclesiastes also tells us there's nothing new under the Sun, and as far as familiar plot twists and turns go, that's a rare comfort to be found here in Noir City. 

The night's second feature was also directed by Barreto and has a title more suitable for a horror movie. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to describe El Vampiro Negro as such. This is a harrowing remake of Fritz Lang's M, but with a maternal slant that's absolutely fascinating. Back in 2014, when Noir City first went international, I wrote:

A respect for contradictory, human personalities makes El Vampiro Negro so compelling. This respect extends to the child killer, Teodoro, a professor whose lousy luck with women has fueled his murderous tendencies toward little girls. Like Peter Lorre before him, Nathán Pinzón plays the murderer as a man fully conscious of his horrific desires but unable to control them. The sight of blood satiates his passions, and at times he resorts to self-mutilation to keep the demons at bay. But the demons usually win, and when Rita's daughter is taken by Teodoro, the audience is suitably terrified. We've come to know Rita, to like her and even be angry at her withholding her witness testimony earlier, so this development has a sick, karmic energy.

The child-in-peril motif can be a lazy way to generate suspense, but Barreto doesn't go for easy shocks. Teodoro responds to Rita's daughter in an unexpected fashion, which may be even sicker than what the audiences fears.

The rest of that article can be found here. Jet lag prevented me from staying to view the new restoration in its entirety, but what I saw was drop-dead gorgeous, a deserving outcome for one of the best movies I've seen in all my years of attending this festival. In an especially noirish twist, Nathán Pinzón, the guy who plays the comic role of Carpax in La Bestia Debe Morir plays the Peter Lorre role in this movie. Everybody has a dark side, especially if they're working the streets of Noir City.