Pale Flower (1964): A Stylish Japanese Noir

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The images aren’t unfamiliar to those acquainted with Japan’s metropolis. A voice surmises over images of the bustling train station. “Back in Tokyo. 3 years. It makes my head spin. Why are so many people crammed into cage-like boxes?”

I couldn’t agree more with our narrator. The sentiments aren’t lost on me from my time living abroad and riding those very same trains with some of those same people. However, he goes further still.

They are strange animals, their faces lifeless — even dead. Later on, he equates step-fathers with pigs and young lovers in a darkened movie theater are much the same. His is quite the high view of humanity. If all of this feels detached and unequivocally unfeeling, then you’ve caught on to the despondency at the core of Pale Flower.

We realize we are in the presence of some sort of present-day philosopher. Of course, Muraki ((Ryō Ikebe) just happens to be a member of one of the local Yakuza gangs. This is his turf. Someone has died since then — someone he killed — but otherwise, nothing has changed. It’s the same place he left during his stint in prison. He returns to the gambling dens to seek out the former crowd.

What’s immediately apparent about Pale Flower, at least from a visual perspective, is the texture of the images. They are pristine and drop-dead gorgeous if generally detached. They come off as silky smooth as their protagonist, who sits down with the other gamblers just like old times catching the eye of a lucky young woman (Mariko Kaga) with quite a winning streak.

Already, it gives off the smoky, self-assured vibes of an old Paul Newman or Steve McQueen movie — something like The Hustler or the Cincinnati Kid — films that had atmosphere and residual cool in spades.

It starts with our hero Muraki. If he’s a little of Newman, he might be a bit of Robert Mitchum too with a cigarette perched between his lips. Or he’s casually walking the streets in his shades like a mature Alain Delon. In a word, it’s the kind of confidence you don’t teach. It feels like it’s been inbred.

As a filmmaker, Masahiro Shinoda displays a few of the same characteristics. Some of his shot selections are awesome feats quickly garnering appreciation. I would be remiss not to mention an overhead shot of all the players gathered around the gambling table, a bold portrait of visual symmetry. It requires a resolute confidence in what your frames have to offer on their own merit.

Recently, I watched Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of The Beast, and it showcases a very different kind of artistry. He willfully blows through all the rules with a blatant disregard and bombastic energy verging on the absurd. This is his calling card throughout his most well-received offerings like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.

Shinoda’s film takes an entirely different approach, sliding casually through conventions without ever losing their sense of cool. Both give us defining portraits of yakuza cinema, but there’s a seriousness even a solemnity present that carries through, down to the black & white imagery. Suzuki would rarely be caught dead with such dourness. Here it works.

It’s also totally reinforced and enhanced by its use of sound, whether clocks, flowing water, clacking tiles, whatever it may be — there’s something about the cadence adding a pace and an innate rhythm to the beats of the story. They’re not always fast, but there is a purposeful confidence in them as they move from one to another. And sometimes, there’s silence — just street noise or feet clopping — other times the bold screeches and scrapes of the score.

If we’ve skimped on plot, it’s because Pale Flower doesn’t necessarily need much to remain effective. Aside from gambling houses, Muraki can be found at the racetrack or paying a visit to his old boss — an unassuming, aging man who takes frequent trips to the dentist.

Coming back, the faithful mobster has come to realize some things have changed in his absence. The two-sided gang war serving as the bulwark of the underworld now has a third party from Osaka complicating the works as they gain ground.

He’s also got a girl waiting for him — a girl who loves him — even as a sensible salaryman asks for her hand in marriage, and Muraki gets distracted by so many things. There’s his work and then other women. For one, Saeko the doe-eyed baby-faced beauty leaves quite an impression wherever she goes. Maybe that’s what happens in an entirely paternalistic society. Regardless, Muraki takes particular interest in her.

She, for one, is young and totally bored with life, riding the highs of gambling, although they can never get quite high enough. One is reminded of the compulsive steadily rising addiction and gambler’s fallacy at the center of Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels.

Still, Saeko needs something else. She’s insatiable. When she can’t gamble anymore, she lets herself get carried away racing down the highways — drunk on adrenaline — and when that still doesn’t satisfy, she needs something more to get off on. She and Muraki in some ways are alike. Up to a point.

He scoffs at the ghostly-faced gangster Yoh. He’s a sleazy dope addict, who always sits in the corner like a gaunt specter. His brand of small-time criminal is a far cry from what Muraki knows. Saeko is drawn to him because he is a concrete gateway to drugs, her latest hobby.

Then, one day Muraki’s ambushed by a young punk at a bowling alley, and he proceeds to beat him to a pulp as other thugs drag him off to the tranquil melody of “Mona Lisa” playing the loudspeakers. It means very little to him even as he considers the cause of the pitiful retribution.

He opens up to the girl. I killed a man I had no reason to kill. It was just a business matter; his number came up. He felt the same exhilaration in the act of violence. It made him feel alive. Now he plays cards because what else is there to do? It’s as defeatist as it is depressing.

At the same time, Muraki’s not the most charismatic figure. He’s not about to be a PR man or make amends for past grievances. It’s not his style even as he’s called on to fill in for the boss in their latest business proposition.

However, this is not all that unnerves him. There’s an eery confrontation in a back alleyway showcasing the apogee of the film’s style. He has nightmares about Saeko, feeling more protective of her than ever. Worst yet, their cohort Tamaki is knifed.

The boss calls out his men. Someone needs to avenge the death of their own and everyone’s hesitant to take on the job. It falls on the shoulders of the one man who is a traditionalist — unswerving in his devotion to duty, honor, and all those unflinching codes.

Very rarely does it feel like the plot is imposing its will on the movie. Much of what Shinoda is doing is not only an exhibition in style but totally invested in creating a tactile world. This allows the pervasive worldview and the characters to dictate what we spend our time seeing and doing.

Gambling, driving fast cars, smoking, and throwing around a bit of shop talk in bars and backrooms. There’s not much to it on paper, but you have to witness it to really appreciate what’s being accomplished.

Even in the lingering moments, we begin to realize we’ve very rarely seen Muraki do anything. Instead, it’s his reputation that proceeds him, including his three-year jail sentence. And yet to watch him in his natural habitat, there is a certain dignity and undoubtedly a kind of code dictating his life. He feels beholden to something.

His final actions are as dutiful as they are fated. He knows what he is going to do, and the scene gives way to what feels like a choreographed dance, playing to the music as only a Yakuza film could pull it off. It’s gut-busting and shocking as a solemn final coda to the film. In some perverse way, it’s his final passionate offering to Saeko. And there is obviously a consequence.

He pays for his crime with another stretch. While he’s on the inside he hears the news. Saeko is dead. His pale flower gone. Muraki’s nightmare proves more prophetic than he’d ever wish to acknowledge. And why should it matter now? It doesn’t. It makes no difference who she was. Life cannot be redeemed by a few all-encompassing words. Not “Rosebud” nor “Pale Flower.”

After all, life is, in the words of the characters, “pointless.” For those folks lifeless on the train. For the young women deadened by drugs. For the gangsters beholden to a code and a lifestyle that feels so senseless. It’s noir sentiments laid bare in the heart of Japan.

4/5 Stars

Youth of The Beast (1963): Directed by Seijun Suzuki

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A crowd gathers outside the Yamato Hotel. Inside two lovers are slain, the cops milling about the crime scene: The man and the woman. The note. It all points to a double suicide (Shinju) and with it a conventional police procedural.

It very well could have been if not for one man: the film’s director Seijun Suzuki. He’s not known to the same degree as some of the hallowed masters of Japanese cinema, but he’s certainly an incomparable creator.

Suzuki is one of the most visually inventive wizards of the shoestring budget crafting a kind of stylized dynamism one doesn’t soon forget. They’re high on color, octane, and idiosyncratic flourishes. There’s nobody quite like him and given his talents, it’s quite the compliment. He could make a shoebox interesting. Instead, he has something genuinely engaging for us to be involved with.

It becomes increasingly apparent the shady business deals and operations around town are run by capitalistic scuzzballs, although we’re not just supplanting the American mafia. Though the film is rampant with gun culture, it’s not quite a House of Bamboo type of racket either, where the outsiders are at the top of the food chain, be it crooked G.I.s or other expatriates. It’s very much a homegrown kind of vice, and it makes sense given Japan’s deeply entrenched traditions of the Yakuza.

What Suzuki offers this already well-established culture and genre is a punchy, vibrant sense of cool searing everything it touches like dry ice with fireworks set ablaze in the streets simultaneously. You can’t help but look. The colors burst with the jazzy frenzy of it all, easily holding court with the French New Wave.

Equally important is a central protagonist, and the director partnered with one of his best in Joe Shishido, who was fashioned into a bit of a cult hero thanks to the yakuza flicks of Suzuki and others. There’s something oddly iconic about his distinctly chipmunk-cheeked profile.

Even as someone who was previously aware of his facial augmentations, his look is at times perturbing, pulling him out of the realm of reality and making him into a bit of a comic book action figure. And he fits the mold well as a cocksure yakuza enforcer.

He steps on people’s hands, throws men about, walks into bars like he owns the place with girls flocking around him. At the end of it all, he earns himself a salary at gunpoint. It’s quite the introduction.

What sets him apart is not simply self-assured, enigmatic cool, but the fact he always seems to be one step ahead. If he’s not quite indestructible, then he usually winds up in control of all the situations he gets himself into. It’s an impressive skill, especially in such a volatile, ever-changing environment.

His reputation more than impresses one of the local bosses, Nomoto, a head honcho with a penchant for stroking cats, throwing knives, and engaging in other dubious extracurriculars. He checks the new man out and he passes with flying colors gaining a faithful ally in the jovial heavy Minami. Jo’s the kind of insurance you want on your team. It’s a bit like stacking the deck.

However, the film makes full use of a Yojimbo-like gimmick with other token genre tropes tossed in for good measure, including the age-old archetype, the fact that everything and everyone is not as they appear. While he’s ingratiating himself with one side — raking in money by calling in their debts — he falls in with the Sanko gang too.

He meets the man in what can only be the back of a movie house — the black and white movie reels playing during their heated confrontations and tenuous partnership. Because he’s already garnered more than a reputation for his recent exploits and acts of tough-guy bravado. What the odd backdrop suggests is a particular eye for novel setups enriching the actions and the related landscape of characters.

At its best, the sets of Youth of the Beast feel totally disposable allowing characters to decimate them in any number of ways. In tandem, they also devise a plethora of ingenious forms to torture their enemies, from whips to razor blades, implemented in all manner of painful ways, on tongues and fingers. Jo torches one of his target’s hair in the process of extortion for goodness sakes! An image like that is literally emblazoned on your mind’s eye.

Likewise, it represents the call girl world without the consequences of When a Woman Ascends The Stairs; it’s more modern and pizzazzy — commoditized to be easy and delectable — specifically for men. One of the picture’s most startling images follows a female junkie crawling out of her skin only to tumble down the stairs for a fix. Moments earlier she rips the stuffing out of a chair from sheer agony.

Jo is ambushed in the shower by one of the bosses’ mistresses; she, in turn, is looking for “The Sixth Mistress.” It trumps The Third Man by three. If it’s not apparent already, all this is blended into a frenetic stream-of-consciousness plotline never waiting for the audience to comprehend everything before it goes careening somewhere else.

But rather than feeling uncentered or discombobulated, it comes off as all being a part of the wild ride courtesy of Suzuki himself. Suzuki’s never intent on holding the viewer’s hand. He rarely bothers explaining himself, putting all his energies into the outlandishness, which gives way to corkscrew twists and turns as we go barreling through the story with reckless abandon.

There are probably one or two things you don’t see coming and a few you will. Others might defy logic. All the better. His cavalier nature, even his disaffection, makes for more electric entertainment.

More than exemplifying a cohesive piece of storytelling from front to back, Youth of The Beast is made by specific moments — the sequences that feel like singular expressions — standing on their own. There’s something somewhat intoxicating about the trip. Both aesthetically and how visceral the movie dares to go, especially given its roots in the 1960s. The mise en scene — the peculiar flourishes of the art are the heart and soul of the story. Not the other way around.

There is a climax, yes, but the particulars feel inconsequential when it comes to drawing up the sides. All we need is a raucous mob war complete with drive-bys and guns galore with Jo thrown into the action. He does battle with an assailant while suspended by his feet from the chandelier. It sounds hilarious and yet it’s harrowing. What’s more, I’ve never seen anything quite like that confrontation before. It’s different.

The movie never courts any kind of sentimentality, and the way Suzuki blows through his material has a freewheeling vigor and the iconoclastic glee of filmmakers as diverse as Sam Fuller and Luis Bunuel even as he deconstructs the yakuza genre.

There’s something thrilling about watching someone where you don’t quite know what they’re going to do next. With such a small amount of capital, it only goes to show the caliber of the director. Where the continual limitations under any given scenario still make it feel like the skies the limit. He was so good in fact, his studio turned right around and fired him only a couple years later. Suzuki was, as we say far too often, ahead of his time. In his case, it’s true.

4/5 Stars

The Housemaid (1960) and a Living Hell

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The opening credits are more self-assured and breezy than I was expecting as the brass sounds off against a pair of kids playing cat’s cradle in the family living. Even with the rain outside, it somehow feels like a fitting depiction of postwar modernity in the 1960s. Films like Ohayo and When a Woman Ascends The Stairs capture a similar cross-section of life.

But this is simply the initial feel — the artistic flourishes being implemented. The most obvious element is the opening conceit between a husband and wife. He reads in the newspaper how a man had an affair with his maid. His wife scoffs at the news. Disgusted that such filth would desecrate the home she’s worked so hard to cultivate. Instantly we have the inkling of tension.

By day Dong-sik Kim is a music teacher. It feels like an all-girls dormitory, although it is actually a factory. He’s fairly straight-laced in his work, but it doesn’t stop the girls from having crushes on him. One in particular. It’s another seed of drama the film sows early on. Because if we learn nothing else, The Housemaid‘s forte is draining the reservoirs of theatricality for all they are worth.

If it’s not already apparent, the film has unabashed tinges of melodrama end to end. I know next to nothing about modern K dramas — apart from their reputation — but could they perchance have roots in films like these? Because we have brazen jumps in narrative and scenes where the story changes almost instantaneously from a sudden tragedy or a paradigmatic shift of some sort.

Of course, the vivacious Cho can’t have the composer, but she does something else instead. She starts getting lessons from him and then another idea comes into her head. You see, the family needs a new maid. It’s almost nonchalant how she offers her roommate the position because she knows the girl will be accepted almost without question. Here the film really begins as a kind of domestic thriller.

It’s all because of this peculiar girl who offers none of the warmth or instant charisma of Cho. She looks rather forlorn and dowdy, hardly the domestic type nor personable. Yet sure enough, she’s enlisted as the newest occupant of the Kim’s impressive two-story abode.

Much like some of Hitchcock’s great achievements (ie. Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Pyscho) or even Bong’s recent success Parasite (paying a great homage to the Housemaid), the domestic space becomes such a lethal vessel for dramatic tension.

If used effectively, there’s an inherent claustrophobia, constriction, and isolation such spaces can bring out. And the directors are able to make it a character unto itself, ripe with all sorts of thematic ideas and visual cues to act as an extension of their story.

Instead of a luminescent glass of milk, it is rat poison stuck away in a cupboard proving a deadly fulcrum within the movie. Packed in that tiny canister of household goods is so much threat and menace.

Director Kim ki-young augments his already contentious dynamics through sheer visual motifs. The stairwells become the most prominent piece of the home — a symbol of wealth — certainly but also social mobility and the seesawing power struggle.

Meanwhile, the sliding doors keep the space tight and confined such that you begin to expect the conflict and then feel it in turn. What’s being developed before us is a kind of cinematic language to go with the raging plonking on the piano taken up by several characters, all disposed to releasing their emotions on the keys. The music alone packs enough rage to pump up the blood pressure.

It succeeds in lending a continual fire to this overwhelming even crippling intensity. It reaches the point of being taxing. We are privy to the duplicity of illicit love that feels like two sides of the same coin. Cho’s puppy-like love for the teacher is forbidden but still youthful and a touch of naive.

However, the other is pernicious in a totally destructive manner as is made plainly evident. One day the wife must go off, leaving her husband with the maid in the house. What’s been alluded to the entire movie finally comes into being. She throws herself at him and he does very little to resist. In the heat of the moment, he’s not about to put up a fight. It’s the repercussions that will come to destroy him and cripple his family.

One must acknowledge all of their indiscretions would come to nothing if not for the fact his new “mistress” is now pregnant with his son even as his wife is about to have his child as well. It plays as a salacious piece of scandal and the maid can willfully wave it around as her bargaining chip — a mode in which to blackmail them.

Because she’s running scared even as she jealousy hangs onto the man who wants nothing more than to cast her off. Now he feels shackled by her. In some harrowing way, the film makes it apparent he is all but powerless to stop her as she ruthlessly scraps for herself. It’s the urban nightmare: held hostage in their own middle-class lifestyle with their kids, their TV, and new home, and it all means next to nothing. It becomes this futile trap they’re perpetually stuck in.

The commentary is so closely tied to the persistent intrigue and there’s the key — how this pursuit of upward mobility, of social status in a vertical society, winds up being their very downfall. They are strangled and then undone by the very tokens of wealth they have craved their entire lives. First, it begins with wifely ambitions and then the unseated desires of her husband compounding the situation.

However, there would be no picture without the self-seeking, crazed intentions of the maid. In her own right, she rivals Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney’s character) in Leave Her to Heaven. She’s so possessive, obsessive in her love, it threatens to tear up every relationship in its wake. There is no peace while she’s alive and her unwavering envy only sows chaos before jumping off the deep end entirely.

Because she haunts them — staring at the children through the sliding glass doors, rain pouring down, even as she harries their dejected father to the point of helplessness.

I mentioned the blackmail — the threat of being social pariahs — as being a kind of force holding them where they are. In this manner, one cannot help but think at Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel where some unnamed force keeps a group of aristocrats trapped in a room.

In the Housemaid the narrative devolves into its own form of living hell. You have to see it in order to understand how insidious it really feels. Because this prison (or noose) is not of a supernatural variety — it is very much implemented by the social structure on hand. And ultimately, no stabilizing cop-out ending can neutralize the frankness behind the nightmare.

One only needs to recall the wife’s desperate assertion to her husband. “My corpse may be silent, but my will won’t be!” In the end, Kim ki-young delivers a shocking portrait boldly mechanizing the multifaceted underpinnings of melodrama as all things romance, thriller, and satire. To this day, it remains an unflinching touchstone of Korean cinema at a time when the world was rapidly changing and still coming to terms with its gains.

4/5 Stars

Strangers When We Meet (1960): Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas

Screenshot 2020-02-10 at 90848 PMRichard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet proves to be a Technicolor feast on par with much of what Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli were putting out at the same time. A lot of the immediate joy comes with getting a feel for life at the time.

Certainly, it’s done up and made into a polished Hollywood middle class, but this serves the motives of the picture. In the meantime, we can busy ourselves taking in all the sights from the bus stops to the grocery stores, the cars, and all the mundane accents of life circa 1960. These would be all too easy to take for granted if not for the fact we are so far removed from that generation.

Kirk Douglas (who we just lost last week at age 103*) is an architect of some repute and though he doesn’t quite have 2.5 kids, he’s living the American Dream. He has a good job, a beautiful wife (Barbara Rush), and his latest project is being drawn up as we speak. Being a product of Douglas himself, Larry Coe is not about to have his vision compromised, and he’s imbued with a dogged bullheadedness evident in all facets of his life.

Kim Novak, in one respect, feels out of place as a suburban housewife and a mother. It’s not her obvious character type with that husky voice and golden allure of hers. And yet this dissonance serves her quite well as a woman who feels trapped and unfulfilled. The stoic aloofness she could always propagate says everything we need to know about her.

In her day, Kim Novak was seen as the answer to frisky and enticing Marilyn Monroe because while still alluring, she is also the antithesis. While neither is particularly far-ranging in their parts, their fundamental approaches are so very different.

Novak’s register is so low and, in a word, reserved. It’s nothing compared to Marilyn’s sing-song quality, but in a film like Strangers When We Meet one must wager it works far better. Even as she hardly feels like the domestic stereotype — as Marilyn does not — it somehow fits her prevailing qualities.

As Strangers When We Meet sets up its world and the relationships orbiting throughout the story, it becomes apparent the movie exhibits another facet of suburbia that complements Bigger Than Life, No Down Payment, or even Rebel Without a Cause. It’s this idea that even within these perceived oases of middle-class comfort, there is still a myriad of anxietieties and discontentments causing fractures at the seams.

Whereas Novak’s husband comes off as a loveless prude, Barbara Rush does her best to make the most of her marriage, romance, and all. She’s the one we feel the most sympathetic towards as it becomes all too obvious she might very well become collateral damage.

Because with two pretty faces as renowned as Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak — no matter who their spouses might be — we have a premonition that they will be getting together in some way, shape, or form. These are the unwritten rules of Hollywood moviegoing. 

I wasn’t considering it at the time, but they first cross paths at the bus stop because their boys are friends. It’s Innocent enough. Then, it’s the aisle of the grocery store. Larry stirs up the courage (or the brashness) to invite Maggie to see his latest work project.

If we wanted to be purely critical of the man, we could say he is taken first and foremost by her extraordinary beauty. Though I feel like his wife is lovely in her own way. The movie suggests there is a bit more to their affair.

It begins because Maggie seems to understand him; she seems to encourage him in his work — to be genuinely impressed and interested in what he does. Maybe it strokes his ego, makes him feel more important, more heard than he’s felt in a long time. If it’s true of Larry, the same holds for Maggie as well. This coalescing of passion is what brings them together.

Walter Matthau is initially underused and yet with his telling look and a few words, he can insinuate even more into this story. I’m thinking in particular of the moment he tells his neighbor, “We’re like furniture in our own homes. Next door we’re heroes.” He senses the angst on the surface and no doubt suspects the fire burning between Larry and Maggie.

It comes to a head during a dinner party Larry’s wife puts on. There’s a sense this is her admirable attempt to win her husband back, in their social spheres with their friends, and then later, behind closed bedroom doors. Because she’s not blind; she can see her man drifting away from her, and she’s not going down without a fight.

These inferences remain out on the fringes suggesting the wants and desires of the men and women even as guests drone about crabgrass and how all women dress the same these days. You have to look beyond all the obfuscation to appreciate the sequences for what they are.

Take, for instance, the striking scene where Novak goes into the bedroom to pick up her coat only to see the intimate space, her face in the mirror — and wish it was hers — wish she could be sharing it with Larry. In the same sequence, she happens upon his inquisitive young son. When he asks her name she responds with “Maggie” — the name his father calls her — that’s somehow more intimate and more a measure of who she is as a human being.

Ed Mcbain’s script is not at all squeamish about melodrama. The apogee comes when the sleazy Matthau gives Larry a taste of his own medicine charging into his home while he’s away and making clear advances toward his wife. His actions seem to defy logic.

Is he merely doing this to stir up Coe or is it a genuine play for Eve’s affections? I’m led to believe it’s the latter because as it happens, it’s a devastating confrontation, even as it teeters on this unnerving precipice. We feel for Rush, victimized like she is really for the entire movie, but here it all stands right there in her living room. Even for an instant, she feels so completely vulnerable.

The rain pouring down outside acts as a sympathetic indicator if not only a torrent of renewed drama. The overstimulated soundtrack doesn’t do the performances any favors, but they leave a melting impression; we must ponder the outcomes.

Because affairs can rarely maintain the status quo. Their very definition makes them into this novel entity in one’s life breaking through the presumed drudgery of the everyday. But there comes a point — a slip-up or a guilty conscience — where they must be brought to light.

Douglas spends the majority of the movie constructing his latest cutting-edge home for a gabby author played by Ernie Kovacs. It’s apparent this yet-to-be-finished structure is a metaphor for his life — his hopes and aspirations outside of the conventional suburban life he leads.

He finishes it too, fully realized in all its glory, and still, we watch Kim Novak drive off on her own. This isn’t Picnic. There is not even a faint flicker of hope of a reunion some miles off in the distance. This feels like a permanent departure. Where the characters have chosen the so-called “noble thing,” to preserve their families in lieu of their own private and clandestine fantasies.

The completed space is a bit like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House except it’s for a life (and a woman) he can never hope to have. It’s heartbreaking for any number of reasons. Not merely because they cannot be together. The layers go further. You wonder if their families can ever heal. How will this affect their children? What about their spouses? Is this just a temporary salve that will fail years down the road? We have no way of knowing. They are the ones who have to live with their choices.

3.5/5 Stars

*Note: I originally wrote this review soon after the passing of Kirk Douglas on February 5, 2020.

La Visita (1963): Commedia all’italiana and The Human Heart

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The premise of The Visitor is born in a rapid succession of images and shots. It’s a meet-cute correspondence so-to-speak as an attractive young woman venturing into her 30s looks to find an eligible man to invite into her home on some kind of ill-defined get-to-know-you basis.

It would not be possible without an advert in a newspaper fishing for a husband who meets certain basic qualifications. It’s not quite a blind date, but it might as well be. It somehow feels akin to the hook-up, internet, online dating culture we are awash in during the 21st century. At least, this is the 1960s alternative.

But lest one gets the wrong impression, it also feels a bit like 84 Charing Cross Road, except there is no pretense of books. They’re two lonely people looking to get together with someone for the sake of companionship. If they’ve read the Good Book, they know it’s not good for man (or woman) to be alone.

The pretty single woman, Pina, waits for the train from Rome bringing her mystery man. Sandra Milo though still her beautiful self all but transforms into a different woman than most are normally accustomed from her in anything from the director’s earlier Andua or Fellini’s 8 1/2.

If you’ve seen anything from Divorce Italian Style to Two Women, you might not be totally surprised (or scandalized) by the misogyny, but somehow it never feels right because it reflects the lustful intent in the collective hearts of men. It’s not the actions that are most troubling; it is what they suggest about society-at-large. When the colloquial name for someone is “Miss Booty,” you realize the seat of the issue.

Because as Pina brings this bookish-looking fellow named Adolfo (Francois Perier) back to her humble abode, the cringe-worthy gaze of the camera — his gaze — continues to dictate the picture. What we have before us is obviously in the mode of so-called “Commedia all’italianaor “comedy the Italian way.”

It’s the Italian spin on the sex comedy, which in Hollywood would look a bit more like Pillow Talk or at the very least Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell. And yet unlike Hollywood, there seems to be little narrative drive. The picture is contented to amble along, which can be both its greatest blessing and a defining curse.

At its best, it casts a sardonic eye at the fragilities and flaws running deep within Italian culture and certainly all its romantic dalliances. But there is a fine line between reveling in the passionate desires and simultaneously trivializing this pervasive trend in society.  There’s an effort to try and smooth it over with humor.

The quirks are present in full force. A parrot sounding unmistakably like Donald Duck and a turtle named Consuelo. Local weirdos abound including an oafish peasant ready to throw jealous temper tantrums and get any sort of rise out of the visiting Roman that he can.

Throughout their courtship, recollections coming stream back whether it’s work — the purportedly well-off bookkeeper is actually hated by his boss. They’ve also maintained relationships in a laundromat and with an itinerant truck driver, respectively, never quite finding time to talk about their former lovers. Perhaps it just slips their minds…

Dinner provides another telling arena. As the man gets more comfortable with himself, we begin to see a bit more of who he is, especially piggish, gobbling away at her dinner and relishing in all the gluttony before him to satiate his appetite. Likewise, there’s the youthful siren (Angela Minervini) tugging at him, reminiscent of Marcello’s desires for Stefania Sandrelli in Divorce Italian Style.

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Except there’s no lacquered pretense of suavity or manners —  not really. The pudgy face, bespectacled lout is precisely that and his interactions with the flaunting girl prove painful to watch. This relationship with Chiaretta comes to a head at a gathering outdoors where all the teens and adults mingle over dance. The wheels fall off the cart. Pina is hurt and feels betrayed by her now uninhibited man. It doesn’t come out immediately. Still, it’s there.

Eventually, she lashes out at him, for his arrogance, his treatment of animals, and of people, including herself. She has a point, and don’t get me wrong; he’s completely deserving of her wrath. But if he gets berated, I might be deserving of a few choice words along with most everyone else. He woefully admits that this is what happens to one living alone. We cannot condone his behavior. It’s a sorry excuse and yet…the harrowing thing is how mundane he is in his substandard treatment of others.

Can we conveniently write them off as lonely, insignificant people trying to get by in the world? I’m not sure. Will we enter the insidious gray area of writing off his behavior or condoning it? It’s possible. I didn’t enjoy being subjected to the utter pitifulness of it all and I’m not sure if I’m ready to admit seeing some of their qualities reflected right back at me. We are not immune to the loneliness they feel. We see all their defects.  Can we acknowledge our own?

This final question remains: Will they find their happiness or live a life weighed down by this sense of miserable drudgery? Redemption begins with not simply a change of actions but a change in heart. It always strikes me Italian-style comedy rarely seems possible without some manifestation of human tragedy. There’s no more human way to grapple with our own boorishness, our own misapprehensions, and our own inadequacies.

3/5 Stars

Adua and Her Friends (1960): Starring Simone Signoret

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It’s movies like Adua and Her Friends from director Antonio Pietrangeli that remind me of the elemental joys of watching movies you’ve never heard of before. It’s a humbling experience to acknowledge how much of cinema there still is to explore and how names like his sometimes arbitrarily get past over.

Because the only reason I ever made my way to the picture was on the merits of the cast alone and taking stock of the names, it is quite the epic ensemble. Simone Signoret anchors with her typically self-assured beauty. Sandra Milo is frisky and if not for her brunette locks, certainly a dumb blonde archetype. Then, Emanuelle Riva, stretching her own range, is angsty and cross with the world that women such as they are subjected to. The three actors are a trio of standouts along with one very special guest to be mentioned later.

Our opening image is a telling one with peppy jazz playing against the brick buildings and cobblestone streets. These exterior shots give us some sense of the adjacent world: the caverns of a local brothel. We learn they have been shut down by the Merlin Law (1958) and must find some new way to subsist.

With no real prospects, four of the women set out to make their own future. They buy up a run-down property partially secluded from town, to turn it into a restaurant, strictly on the level. This is no Risky Business. I could see them remaking this film generations later only for it to lose all of its flavor and charm in translation.

Because they hit every single roadblock imaginable along the way. The nightmares of going into business with starkly different personalities chafing against one another. Managing to get off the ground with the exorbitant amount of startup costs thanks to a deal with the devil. Having your soft open for a handful of customers only to run out of ingredients and any amount of things to feed them. You name it and they have the issue.

But the impediments don’t feel obvious nor the humor madcap and over the top. It finds a happy medium in a perceptive often nuanced equilibrium fluctuating between hardship and laughter. The jazz and sunny countryside neutralize any hint of a dramatic outbreak and though the picture is a tad long, it does allow a certain width and breath to cycle through all sorts of scenes.

Thus, the buildup of the restaurant from a fledgling even flimsy enterprise into a bustling, highly lucrative undertaking, is all the more believable. We see it happening and get to relish the process. This is the movie at its most delightful. It’s not as purely comedic, but even for the briefest of moments, you cannot help but recall Playtime’s own bungled restaurant opening. The difference for these women is their very livelihoods are more obviously at stake.

It plays best as scenarios and momentary interactions. The Father from the local convent drops in, trading conversation and well wishes for the secondhand scraps to serve as slop for his pig. The first customers start trickling in, enticed by the “restaurant” sign over the arch, which leads to an all but empty pavilion lined with tables.

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Each woman has a man in their life, whether physically present or generally absent. Milly hooks the nicest beau of the bunch, smitten with both her and her cooking. Marilina courts the most demons and tries to steady her tumultuous personal life by bringing her young son to live with them. His upbringing causes some squabbles, which ultimately culminate in his baptism.

It’s a poignant moment reflecting the women entering a realm of religious piety. It’s not so much that they have been radically changed, but the way they are perceived and how they make their living gives them a new lease on life. The goodness and inherent decency in them are given a chance to shine through. One is quickly reminded they are not defined by the men who drift in and out around them. The cornerstone of the entire film is their female camaraderie — the affection they hold onto — even when they bicker amongst themselves.

All the villains in the picture are of the opposite sex, and it makes sense given the cultural framework and their past profession. They’ve been relegated to a specific caste of society and in their efforts to break free, they meet the hegemonic forces that be. The most blatantly obvious antagonist is the peremptory Doctor Ercoli (Claudio Gora), who bankrolls them and requests 1 million lire a month for his recompense. When he actually inspects their premises, it reflects just how pitiless he is and how powerless they remain. It still feels like they are owned.

The rest of the louts are more like abject scoundrels and losers. Lolita’s purported beau has all but run off with their money and when he does show his ugly face again, he has the gall to try and pump her for more, spinning tall tales of going on the road again where he’s a big name.

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Their love is not lasting nor their promises secure. Of course, Marcello is charismatic as a car salesman; he always seems to be in all his pictures. There is something pathetically despondent about him at times, but it only serves to mask his swings in infidelity.

Signoret’s moment of ultimate realization is a bitter turning point. She recognizes who he really is and leaves him to his own devices. In the moment, she’s deeply hurt and yet she has an unassailable resiliency to take every beating with poise. Not that she’s unemotional, but she will not be totally trampled by the world around her even as she is wounded.

They reach their lowest point, completely destitute and scandalized, despite everything they did striving to make an honest living for themselves. Instead, they get their pictures plastered all across the pages of the red hot Il Tempo.

Their final act of rebelling is a cathartic one as they go out on their own terms. However, there’s more. Even at its most abysmally low, Signoret soaked head to toe in the rain, jeered by the ladies on the streets, she still maintains her composure.

She’s fallen far but like another French icon, Jeanne Moreau, she captures the screen and even if she’s been toppled, there’s no way to totally crush her. If nothing else, she commands our undivided attention and makes Adua and her Friends worthy of its title. They are a force to be reckoned with no matter what the tabloids might read.

3.5/5 Stars

When a Women Ascends The Stairs (1960): A Prescient Portrait of Japan

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A version of this review was first published in Film Inquiry

If director Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds is a film about making peace with the war years, then When a Woman Who Ascends The Stairs is a far more forward-thinking endeavor. In fact, I would say it’s a near-prescient portrait of where Japan has ventured now over 60 years onward.

One lady comments you can still see the old Tokyo but it’s obvious — even the classy scoring and the generally sleek compositions suggest as much — modern society is upon us in full force.

It’s the 1960s built on the bedrock of a post-war economy. In a highly fashionable area like Ginza — renowned even today for its shopping and glamour — the western influence is undeniable. Most of the film doesn’t take place on the main streets, however, but in the back alcoves in the lines of bars hidden away. Even here the American influence is felt with many of the bar names deriving from English.

What’s presented is a different type of life, even as it presents its own fashionable conception of the world.  Mama-san (Hideko Takamine), as she is known by all, is one of the women living in this world. She is a kind of hostess. If it’s a euphemism or not, I can’t entirely say.

Still, her entire existence can be summed up by one early shot. The daunting stairs winding up in front of her toward her work. In a practical sense, they lead up to the bar she frequents every evening dutifully, but Naruse’s shot comes to represent something far more.

I’m not sure if we could call it the stairs toward the glass ceiling exactly, but it is true she enters a new world when she steps into work every day. She must fortify herself. She has an untenable veneer built up over the years.

It braces her to be the perfect hostess to all, balancing her customers’ entreaties and come-ons with the utmost ease and floating from each conversation with impeccable tact. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she works with her longtime manager and bill collector (Tatsuya Nakadai) trying to eke by paying off the creditors they must rent from.

It’s never a sustainable life. Trying to keep customers happy while getting by on only the smallest of margins. Even a regular, named Minaboe, has started frequenting another place. His absence hurts her business. Thankfully, there is other clientele to work on and so she does her best to keep them happy while never quite acquiescing to their wishes. For 5 years in this tawdry business, she’s kept strong in this regard.

Because this is a film all about sex really, though we never see it outright. And if it is about sex, then it’s only as a commodity, a tool, a bargaining chip to be used. Despite being a story about women giving companionship to men on their business trips and away from their wives, for the longest time, no notion of actual love is developed. This should not catch us by surprise.

It is business first. Mama-san is expected to supply small talk and the girls that work under her flirt with the patrons over drinks. But as Keiko later admits, when she returns to her humbler roots, it’s all a created fabrication. They wear kimonos, buy perfume, and pay for taxis and apartments they can barely afford, way above their paygrade just so they can maintain the fantasy for their obliging audience. Meanwhile, there’s another side, a lot more disheartening and downright heartbreaking.

It’s the undercurrent of Tokyo if you wander into the red district or happen to step outside the confines of the beautifully cultivated exterior. It’s not a lie — all the things in front — but there is so much more to contend with. Love hotels, geishas, and hordes of hostesses to go with them. What do they beget? Among many things suicide, loneliness, and helplessness.

If there is any other film I found myself cycling back to it was actually Imitation of Life, directed by the master of luscious American melodrama Douglas Sirk. It also was about a strong single woman trying to make her way in a world all but dominated by men. If it was true in America, it was even more so in an albeit modernized Japan.

Hideko Takamine faces much of the same struggles as Lana Turner in the movie from a year prior when it comes to her own dreams — in this case, gathering enough funds to open her own bar. The only way to get ahead seems to be settling and giving in to the constant implicit or explicit demands of men. Because they hold the power. Society has certain set expectations. So they must play the game or live a life like hamsters on a wheel, in a constantly spinning wheel of survival.

Turner’s life is equally complicated by her relationship or lack thereof with her daughter (Sandra Dee). But in a manner indicative of Japanese culture, Reiko must deal with a nagging mother and a timid brother who are constantly dependent on her for money. It’s the tug and war between familial duty and what she aspires to.

It starts being a film about love once Mama-san finally relents and opens herself up to be hurt. She’s finally human and loves, and the scenes that evolve out of this development are the film’s most devastating. What makes them even more impactful is how they just keep building off one another, scene after scene. There is no relief in this barrage of pain, rejection, and heartbreak that our heroine is taxed with.

There was a certain continuity created between Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori thanks to their work together in Floating Clouds and yet the relationships go still further. She’s proposed to and berated and lied to and loved. And yet at the end of the day, she must put a cap on her emotions and saunter up those same solitary steps and put on the genteel facade expected of her. The final action, the smile on the face, and then the token salutation, a last touch of irony.

Even with its touches of humor, in an expression or a line of dialogue, it’s nowhere close to the campy, technicolor crescendo Sirk cooked up for Imitation of Life. But as Sirk was capable of dissecting American life, I would wager Naruse is equally perceptive and adept when it comes to Japan.

Satire and sarcasm infused in drama do not function in the same manner in Japan. In its place, Naruse commits irrevocably to his story and consequently provides another moving examination of his culture. It has a lot to say about a Japan that still seems to exist to this very day in ever-evolving forms.  Loneliness, suicide, and patriarchal ways are not just specters out of the past; they are alive and well to this day.

My last thought is only this. Setsuko Hara was the first Japanese actress I truly recognized across a body of the work; she was a luminary personality, and Hideko Takamine might be right below her, proving herself to be incomparable in her own right.

The performance she gives her yet again is so potent with the range and verisimilitude to all but carry the picture. She’s spellbinding, beautiful, and simultaneously breaks our hearts with the depth of her vulnerability. I won’t be forgetting it any time soon. Because in one go she effectively represents an entire subset of human beings and imbues them with unmistakable pathos.

4.5/5 Stars

Hell to Eternity (1960): The Story of Guy Gabaldon

Helltoetpos.jpgAs someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.

A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)

Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.

In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.

We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.

The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.

It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.

However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.

Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting.  It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.

Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.

Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.

We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.

It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.

Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.

What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.

However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.

Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.

Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.

And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.

The one figurehead emblematic of the proud foe is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.

So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.

3.5/5 Stars

Cheyenne Autumn (1964): John Ford’s Western Swan Song

If we had to provide a broad sense of Cheyenne Autumn, it would be all about the mass Exodus of the Cheyenne in 1878 as they journey from the arid land they’ve been subjugated to back to the land the white man had promised to return to them all along.

This is a Hollywood rendition so, obviously, it’s not expected to stick strictly to facts nor does it. The extras John Ford used throughout the picture were in fact Navajo, who spoke their native tongue. He also loaded up on a Hollywood cast headlined by Richard Widmark returning after Two Road Together, portraying an officer in the U.S. Army, Captain Thomas Archer, far more disillusioned in his post than his predecessor.

In the film’s opening grand gesture, the Cheyenne make the long trek hours early, in preparation for their meeting with the white man — a meeting that was supposed to come through on a wealth of promises. Everyone is there waiting anxiously at the military encampment. Among them, Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) and her uncle have made it their life’s work to minister to the Native Americans as suggested by their benevolent Quaker faith.

The only people who don’t show up are the big wigs from Washington, offering yet another rejection and another sign of disrespect. As they leave the encampment, empty-handed once again, there’s in a sense of unease about it. Though the pompous blaggards back east have no concept of their egregious blunder, there’s no question reckoning will come in some form.

This is made apparent and for once in a Ford picture, beyond simply casting a sympathetic eye, the director finally seems to be acknowledging the grievances against the American Indians. Because they have to face arrogant, deceitful men who fatuously believe they have a right to everything they touch. They have no respect for the land, only what they can acquire from it. Soldiers who are supposed to be peacekeepers, as well as tacticians, are equally suspect.

In a fine bit of casting, Patrick Wayne plays a young upstart who has waited his whole life to have it out with the Cheyenne, and the circumstances make no difference to him, even if he has to create them himself. Other soldiers like Karl Malden’s commander espouse unprejudiced mentalities only to be frozen by the chain of command. It proves equally inimical, if not more so.

Under Archer’s command are also numerous steady, career soldiers like Mike Mazurki, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. To have the latter two in yet another Ford picture is certainly a fitting remembrance. They were as crucial to his work as any of the larger stars like John Wayne or James Stewart (more of him later).

Wagon Master and Rio Grande, from 1950, would be enough for many actors to build a reputation on. Even over a decade later, it’s a testament to this close-knit bunch that they still remained steadfast to the end. These are when the sentimentalities of the picture are most apparent.

In all candor, Cheyenne Autumn is long, at times arduous, but within that runtime, it speaks to so much, including Ford’s own legacy. This is what makes it such a fascinating final marker in his career. Again, it’s the side of the western movie he never truly showed before. It’s as if age has softened him to what he did not see before.

We’re in Monument Valley on the eve of a skirmish. We’ve seen this scene before but from the other side. Native Americans digging in to fight the cavalry on the other side of the canyon. This is not a battle between the heroes and villains but the victors and the victimized.

Whatever flaws come to the fore with a white director making a movie about Native Americans, so be it. They are present, but none of this can totally discount the interludes of natural beauty and deep affecting sympathy on display.

Initially, Ford had wanted to cast some version of Anthony Quinn, Richard Boone, or Woody Strode in the roles of the Indian chiefs. All men consequently had some Native American heritage. The parts of Little Wolf and Dull Knife ultimately were given to Mexican-American actors Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland. The addition of Dolores Del Rio and a wordless Sal Mineo also feel equally peculiar. Mind you, these are only caveats mentioned in passing.

Cheyenne Autumn feels like a glorious mess of a film. It’s as epic as they come and striking for all its splendor; it’s also all over the place in terms of narrative. Perhaps Ford’s not totally invested here. This was never his main concern nor his forte. And in his final western, he does us a service by coming through with what he does best.

What else can we mention now but Monument Valley — the locale most closely identified with him — and yet it could just as easily be turned around and commended as the place he most identified with. Again, we can almost speak in parables because it can represent so many things from beauty to ruggedness from life and then death.

Take, for instance, when the chief elder is finally laid to rest, and the rocks are dislodged to form his burial chambers — off in the distance more of his people ride across the plateaus — it says everything that needs to be said. It is a moment of closure on all the images Ford himself ever captured in his home away from home.

As a short respite, John Ford provides a highly comedic Dodge City intermission with Jimmy Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and John Carradine among others. You’ve never seen Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday quite this jocular as they play poker, ride around in a buggy, and help rescue a floozie (Elizabeth Allen) running around with a parasol and a ripped dress.

Now it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It would be easy to cry foul for mixing disparate tones and totally flipping the script of the movie. This isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t fully take into account Ford’s intentions. He knows full well what he is doing, using the language of the moviegoing public bred on the epic. It injects brief levity into an otherwise dour picture. In fact, it might be too much levity, although it could make a fine comic western all its own.

Because I won’t pretend the drama doesn’t wear on. The beginning is far more compelling than the end, but the journey is of paramount importance and what it represents. Although Edward G. Robinson plays one voice of reason back east and Widmark plays another enlightened savior out in the field, not to mention Baker’s tireless quaker acting as a protector of the Cheyenne children, they are not all-powerful.

It’s as much a story of loss and failure as it is of tragedy and miscommunication. Again, this is not to say any of this is to be taken as truth and lines drawn in the sand when it comes to what the history books say. But Ford is working the only way he knows how, with the strokes of a painter on this canvas illuminating a story. He is making amends in an imperfect, fragile way. Do with it what you will.

While it’s not the glorious heights one might have guessed for John Ford’s final picture in Monument Valley and his final western, somehow it feels like a fitting capstone just the same. The tone says as much as anything else in the picture. It’s yet another elegy reminiscent of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and many of his earlier works. Except this would be the last one. It was the autumn of his career as well.

3.5/5 Stars

Sergeant Rutledge (1960): Starring Woody Strode

“It’s alright for Mr. Lincoln to say we’re free, but that ain’t so. Maybe someday, but not yet.” – Sergeant Rutledge

Sergeant Rutledge rarely gets talked about with the greatest westerns or even the greatest westerns of John Ford. Without getting overly effusive with my praise, it should be heralded as an underrated gem worthy of far more scrutiny. History is more than on its side. The movie preceded To Kill a Mockingbird by at least a year while examining similar themes of a black man on trial for rape, albeit through the specific settings (ie. Monument Valley) and lens of its director.

As purely a courtroom drama, it’s probably more engrossing because the other film is just as impactful for its relationship outside the court’s walls. The familial relationship is the core of the story. In Sergeant Rutledge, Ford gladly builds up the atmosphere of the courtroom while allowing it to bleed out and color the rest of his narrative, set against the backdrop of apache raids.

Willis Bouchey stands out as the demonstrative head of the court marshall tribunal, Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate. The turn might be one of his most substantial and enjoyable roles on the big screen. Not only did he have an extraordinary career on the small screen, but he was an often called upon member of John Ford’s stable of actors. His foray in this picture makes it plain enough. Every time he asks for “water” or scolds his wife, it provides instant texture.

Because his wife, Billie Burke, is one of the goody-two-shoes in the peanut gallery, prepared to watch the court case in their finest clothes with their mouths agape and their eyes agog. Meanwhile, the rowdiest fellows stand impatiently in the back smoking their pipes and raising a brouhaha. The judge has enough gumption to clear them all out.

There’s no doubt Ford is in control of the courtroom scenes, from its initial clearing to the subsequent stage lighting to highlight witnesses on the stand. It’s quite extraordinary rather like when Hithcock worked through The Paradine Case breaking the stagnant sequences up with purposeful moments. These are bulked up through substantial flashbacks where we are allowed to invest in the drama firsthand, becoming involved more and more in something that feels like a traditional murder mystery.

The first to take the stand is Mary Beecher (Constance Towers), a quivering young woman who caught Sergeant Rutledge in a compromising and nevertheless now comes to intercede on his behalf, not to accuse him. She recounts how, left in a deserted town, it was the honorable soldier who willfully saved her life.

Next, Fosgate’s own wife (Burke) takes the stand with her usual tittering mannerisms, relaying the last time she saw spunky young Lucy Davenport alive, before she was brutally raped. She came to the general store and shared a conversation with Rutledge. This was no surprise as he was the man who taught her how to ride a horse and practically raised her. To the eyes of all those on the outside looking in, it leads them to burn with indignation.

The dialogue throughout is often curt if not altogether mundane, even overly twee in the lightweight moments, but the scenario itself and Ford’s interaction with it, make it worthwhile viewing. It’s what he’s able to build up around them, devolving into a fairly unheard of exploration of racial tensions on the range. When it gets talky and the message is made obvious, it loses its impact — looking all the more of its time.

What builds a lasting impression are the images — watching the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers — appreciating their discipline and fortitude. Surely seeing these representations say enough about how American society treats non-whites, both in life and on celluloid. They are deserving of the same amount of human dignity and not having the burden of proof thrust upon them merely based on the color of their skin.

Because this is what it comes down to. Sergeant Rutledge (Woody Strode) is on trial to be hung, accused of rape and murder. This is not a pleasant affair whatever the outcome might be. As Jefferey Hunter headlines another Ford Western (following The Searchers), he holds a crucial stake in the case as both one of Rutledge’s superiors but also his defense counsel, and, ultimately, his friend.

Woody Strode might be buried in the credits, but there’s no doubting his prominence at the heart of the drama. It’s his stalwart characterization that allows it to stands out from the crowd of westerns from the era — and in Ford’s own lineage — because it gives him a place of cinematic significance. One scene, in particular, is easy to call upon.

In the dead of night, there’s a refrain of “Captain Buffalo” as Sergeant Rutledge stands on the ridge, the moon in the foreground behind him, looking down at his men; it’s only a brief aside, but something in me stopped still because these are the kinds of moments, if you’re lucky, you’ll see in a Ford picture. How do we quantify them? They’re a feeling, a sense, speaking to so much of who we are and what our country means. It’s history, both rich and also riddled with honor and disgrace. I look at Rutledge and I’m proud and a moment later ashamed for how a man such as this is treated.

Woody Strode was used quite well by John Ford on several occasions; he gained some repute for his role in Spartacus; but to my knowledge, he never had a role more extraordinary than that of Sergeant Rutledge. It’s indicative of the industry that Strode — once a football star alongside the likes of Jackie Robinson — was never a bigger movie star.

Here is a picture that allows him the opportunity to show his talents, and he does so with unsurpassed strength and dignity. Captain Buffalo, as eulogized, is a mythical figure surpassing John Henry in his larger-than-life gravitas, and Woody Strode is as close as we could have gotten to seeing him in the flesh.

Part of this is the man himself, quiet yet formidable, and of course, Pappy Ford does him the greatest service. He allows him to be great and sets him up in such a sympathetic yet empowering light.

I’m glad we have this movie, and I’m delighted Ford had the guts enough to make it. Woody Strode deserved many more pictures like this one. For that matter, so did the eminent Juano Hernadez and all these men. It has to do with what this film represents.

We rarely get to see eulogies to the Buffalo Soldiers and this one is as good as anything I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s captured as only John Ford can do it — enamored with the American myth — while still beholden to our own hardened reality. To come to terms with both is one of Ford’s great gifts.

4/5 Stars