The Flame and The Arrow (1950): Italy’s Acrobatic Robin Hood

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In the region of Italy called Lombardy, Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) is a bit of an Italian Robin Hood. However, his acclaim as an outlaw is brought on by personal conviction and a blatant disregard for authority. Others are captivated by his lionhearted bravado and fearlessness that, even as a peasant, leads him to brazenly defy the local despot Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), known as “The Hawk.”

The two rivals have a muddy history embroiled in wonderfully complicated family dynamics as we soon come to understand. No, they are not related, as Dardo has no noble blood, but his former wife (Lynn Baggett) has willfully taken up as one of “The Hawk’s” courtiers. For that, the proud man has never forgiven her and entreats his young son to remember his mother so he can know the truth about what she did. The boy is played by the terribly precocious Gordon Gebert who many might remember from his memorable turn opposite Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949). He’s much more astute than his age might lead us to believe.

In an act of skill and overt cheekiness, Dardo shoots down one of the king’s prized hunting birds and must flee across the rooftops, scaling walls and scrambling away to live another day. But his son is not so lucky and he gives himself up to the guards so his wounded father can get away. He will be taken to be with his mother and trained up in the way of a nobleman. Learning how to carry himself and dance like a little gentleman. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it. He is the heart and soul over which the entire film will be fought over.

Though he received a great deal of help from quality stunt performers like industry veteran Don Turner, there’s no doubt Lancaster’s own training as an acrobat was put to good use in this swashbuckler, which even saw him partnered with one of his old company Nick Cravat.

There’s an instant camaraderie between Dardo and the mute Piccolo. It’s palpable because the two performers have, in fact, spent many years together on the road doing acrobatic feats together so the trust is by no means a fabrication. They put the real-world rapport to good use through every trial they must face together. They know amid all the treachery on hand, their friendship will hold fast.

Among other bits of mischief, they create a man-made avalanche to come raining down on “The Hawk’s” guards in a mountain pass to frighten them away. Then, the merry brigands are joined by Allesandro (Robert Douglas) who was recently scorned by the Count. He is accompanied by his bard, a very well-versed fellow with a wry wit (Norman Lloyd).

Soon Dardo is on his way to disrupting the king’s courts to collect his son and comes swinging down right into their dinner, fending off the soldier’s lances with a flaming torch. Whether or not it would be practically effective is up for debate but it sure looks cool.

Although they are thwarted in their initial objective, in the hubbub, they manage to steal the princess, the Count’s glamorous niece (Virginia Mayo), away from the castle as leverage. She’s taken back to their lair, situated on some ruins in the wilderness, far from the prying eyes of the Count, to wait it out in captivity. The next move is to bait an irresistible trap for the outlaws by taking Dardo’s feeble uncle to be hung on the gallows within the city gates. The showdown is set. And yet when that is handily dealt with a whole row of new hangings come in its place.

The Count is beyond playing nice. He wants to see Dardo squirm and he’s going to do everything in his power to end him once and for all. In fact, it looks like he’s outmatched his pesky arch-rival. Yet with the help of the townsfolk, the outlaw pulls off one of the great death-defying stunts of all time.

At its best, The Flame and The Arrow really becomes a game — a medieval fencing match with deliberate lunges to go on the offensive then feints and parries, ripostes and other countermeasures all culminating in one final victor. But it comes down to the wire.

The king’s guardsmen prove no match for hordes of villagers and carnival showman led by Dardo, in one last daring siege, rescuing prisoners and overrunning the premises in a most uproarious fashion. But the beauty of how the allegiances have been set up means in order to get to the king, who is looking to run off with Dardo’s boy to live another day, he must go through Allesandro who is compelled to hold him off.

All in all, The Flame and The Arrow lives up to its name with lively acrobatic combat sequences and an impressively agile Burt Lancaster. I must admit I had never seen him in this light as a kind of cavalier action hero cast out in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. I know now he was more than capable of the rigorous challenges.

Virginia Mayo is as feisty as she is radiant, caught between her royal blood and a man who excites her more than anyone she has ever met. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur demonstrates once again that he is one of the finest directors of genre pictures Classic Hollywood ever had moving so freely between horror, westerns, adventure, etc. He can do it all.

4/5 Stars

Gambit (1966): Please Don’t Tell the Beginning!

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Gambit is a film that looks as if it could be so very cut-and-dried, a simple run through and reworking of what we’ve seen time and time again in the age of James Bond, heist films, and romantic thrillers. I’m not saying that still can’t be fun but at a certain point, the ideas have run their course. Thankfully this story, helmed by British producer/cinematographer-turned-director Ronald Neame, has a few tricks up its sleeves and it starts right at the beginning.

I’m not usually keen on SPOILER ALERTS but with Gambit I’ll make an exception as it is a unique case. As the tagline reads, “Go ahead and tell the end. But please don’t tell the beginning!” It’s all very tantalizingly cryptic and as I aim to spoil the beginning and leave the ending open as usual please veer off course and stop reading right this minute if that’s something that you will later come to regret. Anyway, you’ve been fairly warned. For everyone else let’s go back to the opening.

Perhaps the billing does provide a hint of some kind with Shirley MacLaine positioned as our lead and Michael Caine billed second right behind her. Still, it’s the old expectations versus reality hijinks that the film readily unfurls. Michael Caine brings his working-class cockney rogue to the party this time as a two-bit burglar named Harry Dean. Despite being his first Hollywood showing he takes it in stride and nearly steals the picture. But he’s got to at least contend with his costar. Shirley MacLaine is not much of a French-Eurasian but eventually, her ditsy charm shines through when she’s finally able to lay it on. But that’s just it. It takes a while for her to show up as we’ve always know n her and for good reason.

Gambit gives us a facsimile of the perfect crime as envisioned by a criminal. Everything is planned out like clockwork. He’s made allowances for every wrinkle and his understanding of human psychology is unprecedented. Above all, his female companion, his entry point to the richest man in the world (Herbert Lom), is a mute exotic dancer who does exactly what she’s told and nothing more. What could be better than that? The objective of getting in to snitch a priceless artifact comes off seamlessly.

Except we’ve seen that movie before. Thus, Gambit does us a favor by leaving that on the drawing floor as merely Harry’s conception of how things will go as he explains them to his buddy Emile. Only later the movie begins playing the events out for real and subsequently starts subverting the generally accepted principles of a perfect heist with something marginally more interesting.

There’s no limo to meet them at the airport so they must cram into a taxi. Emile isn’t able to get to a payphone to make contact thanks to a gabby local. The wealthy collector, Shahbandar, is a far more modern and shrewd man than his projected eccentric image would have it. In fact, he already suspects them before he makes their acquaintance and his compound is equipped with foolproof security measures.

Harry hasn’t got a prayer to get away with the goods. And yet thankfully Nicole plays a far more substantial role than she was supposed to (much as we were expecting). Because though she’s hardly predictable and initially disapproves of Harry’s activities, she reluctantly goes along and proves to be a major asset thanks to her knowledge of Eastern culture paired with an intuitive wit.

To spoil the punchline would be an egregious offense so I will do my best at showing restraint. All I can say is that no one goes to jail, two people go off in love, and one artist is in high demand as a result. The look on MacLaine’s face when she exclaims, “You’re not even honest enough to be crooks” captures it all. She’s right. There’s nothing worse than the dreaded PR Stunts of attention seekers. They’re merciless. But love wins out in the end.

In a similar vein to How to Steal a Million (1965), Gambit proves itself to be a repeatedly diverting comic caper with moments of intrigue that would be amiss if not for its light-hearted winks of humor. Its greatest trick is a continual undermining of convention, creating a story with a few more wrinkles than we’re used to. In other words, its mode of narrative is just unconventional enough to make for a fine showing. I do quite like a good gambit and this one doesn’t disappoint.

3.5/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1955): The Brew That Is True

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Maybe I’m simply partial to Medieval forms of entertainment but it’s hard to imagine a finer vehicle for Danny Kaye than The Court Jester. It needs to be lithe enough to accommodate his goofy even acrobatic brand of song-and-dance buffoonery. What better arena for Kaye than the king’s courts, that laughable domain of a man in a dunce cap and tights?

However, equally important is some form of plot for the actor to hang his routine on. The production is complemented exquisitely by a lavish setting replete with fine costuming, bejeweled individuals, and everything from knights and sword fights to magic incantations, backroom treachery, and romantic entanglements.

The humorous tongue-in-cheek opening diddy “Life Could Not Better Be” sets the tone nicely. We are inserted into a storyline that is a decidedly genial Robin Hood knockoff. In his place is our righteous outlaw The Black Fox who is looking to install the rightful king to the throne, the infant with the royal birthmark — the purple pimpernel.

The malevolent, power-hungry King Roderick has usurped the domain and set himself up as the supreme leader of the land, surrounding himself with an array of equally loutish characters, namely Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The King is hopeful an alliance with a knight named Griswold will help him to vanquish his mortal foe, the Fox, promising to betroth his reluctant daughter (Angela Lansbury) as a sign of goodwill.

Ravenhurst, fearful that his place of prominence might be undercut, calls on the services of a Court Jester named Giacomo (John Carradine) to do away with the king’s other consorts. However, on the surface, it seems the perfect disguise for the minstrel Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) to aid the Black Fox in his raid on the castle.

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If Kaye is for all intent in purposes our Allan a Dale thrust into our Robin Hoodish role, then Glynnis John is his fair companion Maid Jean (aka Maid Marian) who also happens to be a trusted captain of the Foxes men (aka his capable Little John).

After they overtake the real Giacomo, the carnival showman dons the robes of a jester for the masquerade. He thinks there is only one agenda. To meet a contact within the castle on behalf of The Black Fox. Little does he know, he’s also got to look after the well-being of a precious baby in a basket while unwittingly making a connection with Ravenhurst who assumes him to be an assassin (“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good!”).

Meanwhile, the princess receives an oracle from her personal maid — a witch named Griselda (Mildred Natwick) — that a gallant man will soon arrive at the castle to have her hand. Little does the new Giacomo know he’s now caught up in a third complication as Griselda casts a spell on him turning him into a strapping and virtuous lover with the snap of her fingers — another one of the film’s recurring gags.

After his new entertainment arrives from Italy, the king also sends out an edict that all the fair wenches of the land be brought into his courts and, of course, the lovely countenance of Maid Jean gains the favor of the king, earning her a prestigious place in his company.

As he does his best not to bungle (by purposefully bungling) his floor show to earn the approbation of his master, Kaye must try and resolve the three plans of action put forward, though he’s conveniently forgotten them all.

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Soon our hero is ousted as an imposter and a cunning plan is enacted to red light him for knighthood so he will be eligible to face off against Griswold at the following day’s tournament for the hand of the princess. It’s all but inevitable. He’s a dead man without a chance at survival unless the Black Fox can come in time to take his place! Alas, it is not to be.

Their last-ditch effort is to try and poison Kaye’s formidable foe before they enter into combat. What it sets up is the film’s most beloved gag and one of the most heavily quoted routines there ever was: The Vessel with the Pestle and The Chalice from the Palace. In typical Kaye fashion, he struggles to remember which one holds the brew that is true or as he says it “the true that is brew.” Add the Flagon with the Dragon to the verbal shell game and he’s done for.

The extended hijinks is pure tongue-twisting, mind-boggling perfection, given an added exclamation point by his suit of armor becoming conveniently magnetized. This causes him to continually clunk into his adversary as they present themselves before the king. It couldn’t be funnier. And as a good belly laugh is often hard to come by these days, I was greatly delighted. The scene plays just as well as the first time I’d seen it.

But the antics in part give way to some genuine thrills as the jester leads a daring uprising against their would-be captors capped off by a counter-offensive by their friends. A merry band of little people sneaks in only to terrorize the courts and form a conveyor belt to fling their adversary away from the castle premises with a catapult. What follows is a storming of the castle by the rest of the rebels and a finale of the best comical homage to Technicolor Robin Hood there ever was.

A final duel with Ravenhurst showcases Kaye’s bipolar “dual” personalities. First, the frantic slap fighting of a craven coward, then the cocksure swordsmanship of a man with endless confidence, though it takes some support from his true love to send Ravehurst to his fitting demise.

There, in a nutshell, you have the impeccable concoction of the film reflected in Kaye. He’s a buffoon as much as he is a hero who nevertheless comes out on top thanks to another’s love. With a fairy tale ending such as this, life could not better be. Of course, The Court Jester is spruced up by the very fact it supplies a wagon-load of laughs to supplement a thoroughly agreeable adventure.

4.5/5 Stars

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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To watch the original Thomas Crown Affair now is to see a film that is so completely and confidently of its time. It opens with a Bond-esque enigmatic title theme, “Windmills of The Mind,” playing against blocked split-screen images composing the credits. As such, it’s easily dated by its 60s suavity, which nevertheless serves the film handsomely as it progresses and sinks into its story.

A heist is in its latent stages, composed of the same stylized patchwork of images visually coordinating all the parties involved as Steve McQueen pulls all the switches from the comforts of his corporate office. The streamlining techniques being utilized effectively consolidate the footage and make us more overtly aware of Hal Ashby’s influence serving as the film’s editor. It’s at times discombobulating, particularly when used extensively later on during the polo match to multiply the frames. But it more than serves its purpose through the stylized manipulation of the individual images.

It’s only a heist film for what seems like a few solitary minutes but it’s immaculate in both conception and execution as all parties converge on their target, get in and get out with their prize and very few complications. In this regard, those familiar with Kansas City Confidential (1952) might notice some nominal similarities. The brilliance of the crime comes in using robbers who have never met and can never be tied back to each other again.

The money is dropped off at a checkpoint and all parties involved will get their money when things cool off. In these opening moments you’ll wonder if Steve McQueen is actually a bad guy and where Faye Dunaway is because, after all, she robs banks too. When things begin to unfold and we see where we are destined, it’s not at all what I imagined with McQueen and Dunaway batting for different teams much of the film.

Insurance Investigator Vicki Anderson (Dunaway) is brought on as a favor to her friend to help a harried detective gain some much-needed closure on the case. She makes a stunning entrance and never lets up with the wardrobe changes. Ms. Anderson has an immaculate outfit to coincide with each subsequent scene and an answer for every situation. In fact, she’s the one who intuitively pins Thomas Crown as her man. All she’s got to do is prove it and she certainly can be very persuasive.

McQueen is the eponymous affluent playboy businessman who’s bored stiff by his day-to-day. It includes diversions like polo, dune buggy rides sliding across the sand and soaring through the skies in his custom-built sailplane. For a man like him, it’s not enough so he devotes himself to the perfect crime and it’s his lucky day when he meets a ravishing woman looking to trap him. It makes life a bit more exhilarating.

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Among other rendezvous, they play a literal chess match in his parlor, which serves the dual purpose. Not only does it reflect the sparring going on between the two of them but it effectively accentuates the romantic chemistry pulsing through them with every headlong glance, every thoughtful thrumming of the fingers, or caress of a chess piece. It’s near-wordless with Michel Legrand’s score impeccably setting the quietly sultry mood in the low light.

On top of the title track, Legrand devised his score by composing against the uncut footage and in a generally unprecedented move, the movie was cut to his work. What we are met with within the same extended sequence are faces eventually framed in lingering close-ups. Eyes, mouths, nervous ticks denoting concentration. What’s more, it all culminates into a spiraling kissing extravaganza kaleidoscope of color.

As Vickie closes in on Thomas, he knows she cares about him and he must force her hand instigating a nearly identical heist to draw out her response. She can either work with the authorities or chase after him as he soars away in his jet decked out in his iconic blue-tinged Persol sunglasses. It’s her choice.

The Thomas Crown Affair is the most backward game of cat and mouse with the coolest rodent you ever did see crossing wits with an equally wily and lovely feline. But the stakes are minor in this sumptuous affair as it’s all style over substance in this second teaming of McQueen with director Norman Jewison. Of course, when you have two stars as scintillating as McQueen and Dunaway one could argue that you don’t need much else. Purportedly McQueen jokingly christened his unestablished costar “Done Fade-Away” as a little picture called Bonnie and Clyde (1967) hadn’t been released yet. Boy, was he wrong. She was here to stay.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sea Wolf (1941)

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“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” – John Milton in Paradise Lost

Though some noir film layered in London fog is probably up for contention, otherwise, there’s arguably no movie murkier than this atmospheric sea-faring delight from Michael Curtiz. But what puts it above and beyond some of its contemporaries, especially swashbucklers like a Black Swan, has to do with a variability and surprising depth of characterization for what feels like such a minor vehicle.

From the framework of Jack London’s novel, screenwriter Robert Rossen has cleverly repurposed the material and made it thoroughly well-suited for the cast at hand, expanding the roles for his stars. For most of its running time, in fact, the story is aboard the ominously named vessel, “The Ghost,” while maintaining an unwavering level of intensity.

Certainly the aforementioned climate plays into it because it can exude a level of impending menace. Still, you can only get so far on that. There needs to be legitimate emotional resonance and some amount of real even complex conflict at the core if a glorified chamber piece like this is to stay afloat. Thankfully, due to its characters, it does. At any rate, we are provided several fascinating figures to try and comprehend.

John Garfield is one of them, a fiery sailor named George Leach who is on the run and he doesn’t care where he ends up. In his case, he winds up a lowly cabin boy. Again, he doesn’t care.  Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is escaped from a woman’s reformatory and seeks the corroboration of a fiction writer named (van Weyden) as it ends up, their voyage is ill-fated following a collision that sets off a deluge of water leaving them hopelessly shipwrecked.

In the aftermath, they are picked up by the schooner “The Ghost,”  its tyrannical captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) leading a crew of no-good and hard-bitten seamen. Barry Fitzgerald excites as the knife-toting cook who’s as ornery as you’ve ever seen the plucky Irishman. The writer is brought on as cabin boy given the rude awakening that the captain has no designs to drop him off onshore. His vocation and unwavering monotone are perfect for conveying this impartial point of view for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, John Garfield embittered with a chip on his shoulder is forced to take on harder labor and his anger smolders against everyone.

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The girl, Ms. Webster (Lupino) is deathly sick and the swacked and constantly unstable doctor (Gene Lockhart) seems to be of little help. His nerves as a physician look completely shot. By some miracle, he’s able to get sober enough to nurse the lady back to health, of course, when she makes her first public appearance looking to be the picture of propriety, the seafaring men are quick to see through her. She’s another unwanted sea rat just like all of them.

It’s plain to see she’s not about to earn any favors and the same goes for the other newly acquired deckhands. They have few rights as the sea captain runs the ship with a dictatorial hand. In all affairs he controls everything and he can be a ruthless taskmaster with his boys carrying out his every order with a rowdy mania, even turning against their own when given a chance.

However, although Wolf is a tough man, he nevertheless has an inscrutable side well-read in Milton and knowing a past of innumerable hardship. It’s these very traits that make van Weyden crucial as someone who is able to get closer than the others in order to try and tease out who Larsen really is.

A mass of contradictions, with a brain and a need for dignity in a harsh world but he also has a vengeful brother hanging over him, avowing to blow him to smithereens. If there is any regret in Larsen, he’s resolutely set his course and rarely looks back, making sure to maintain his supremacy over his men in all circumstances. His philosophy is purely self-serving.

But even he begins to crack. The film is laden with claustrophobic and seasick-inducing interiors depicting living hell on the waves with Larsen lording over it with an iron fist. Of course, with mutiny afoot instigated by Leach, finally able to exercise his lust for authority, there’s bound to be drama, even as he begins to carry a torch for Ruth.

Because later he, Ms. Webster, and van Weyden look to escape only to have their provisions sabotaged by Larsen, and “The Ghost” is ultimately ambushed by its mortal enemy. The hourglass is running out. But even as the captain goes down with his ship, a near pitiful figure now, he looks to take as many others down with him as he can. In opposition to such selfishness, a contrasting force of sacrifice is called for.

4/5 Stars

Note: The cut I watched was the shortened 1947 cut. The restored cut was reissued in 2017 at its full length of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was the theatrical cut before it was edited to fit on a double bill with another Curtiz picture The Sea Hawk (1941).

 

The Black Swan (1942)

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If you make your way to this swashbuckler you’ll find a movie set in The Spanish Main as England has just brokered a peace treaty with their imperialistic competitors. As you probably already surmised, you might as well leave your textbooks on maritime history at home because there’s no need to reference them here. Actually, I stand corrected. Captain Henry Morgan was a real person. Everything else is an excuse for pillaging gold and adventure on the high seas.

As someone educated on Tintin serials (ie. The Secret of the Unicorn) and “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” enjoying such a picture from perennial Hollywood journeyman Henry King is hardly a chore taken for what it is.

In the opening moments, we have coastal marauders who overrun a city to loot it and run off with pretty girls. They’ve even stretched a conceited official on the wrack for good measure. Except a counterattack by the local militia ensues and soon we learn from the reformed pirate, Henry Morgan himself (Laird Cregar), things have changed.

He has been made Magistrate of Jamaica in return for his loyalty and he calls his faithful scallywags to join him in a bit of respectability on the right side of the law. His longtime right-hand man, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), agrees to it, though some of the others led by treacherous Billy Leech (George Sanders) look to try their luck on the seas like always.

The pictures finest asset is a cast as thick as thieves. A particularly cheeky Tyrone Power is at the top his of game, looking like he’s having a swell time of it, being a bit of a dashing scoundrel right up there with Errol Flynn. Cregar is memorable yet again as the formidable blaggard with many a plume. He and “Jamie Boy” share a particularly humorous reunion when Power dumps a purportedly unconscious Maureen O’Hara like a sack of potatoes to give his old buddy, Captain Morgan, a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, George Sanders is almost unrecognizable as a mangy red beard. It’s one of those makeover jobs where you have to do a double take to try and differentiate that familiar voice hiding behind a very unfamiliar visage.

Following up his villainous turn opposite Power in Son of Fury (1942), Sanders is back and even better. Though not seemingly the athletic type or a swordsman for that matter, he lends the right amount of licentiousness and folly to his turn as Captain Leech.

Thomas Mitchell, a man who could play a character part in his sleep, colors in his role as the quintessential boisterous, bandanna-wearing sea hand who’s right by Jamie’s side whenever he’s needed. There’s even Anthony Quinn with an eye patch, though woefully underused and Maureen O’Hara, the most desirable “wench” there ever was on the Caribbean, as our only leading lady.

It must be acknowledged however the script all but wastes her talents as she hardly fits the archetype of your normative “damsel in distress” role, though her beauty in Technicolor is admittedly unsurpassed. While hampered by an unimaginative part, she still manages a few fiery exchanges with Power after his character kidnaps her as his bride-to-be and they subsequently build some kind of rapport out of the sparks in a mere scene or two.

The picture follows Jamie Boy as he scours the ocean for his old shipmate, Billy Leech, who is up to his old plundering ways, terrorizing the seas and ruining the tranquility of the two world powers. Though reformed, Morgan is under fire from a council that finds his position suspect as he was once in cahoots with the wanton criminal. The authorities at hand call for impeachment even as one among their ranks sows discord.

What else is expected except a final shootout on the seas complete with a barrage of cannons? Jamie is held prisoner by the man he was sworn to apprehend while other forces look to hang him for perceived insubordination. But Tyrone Power is more than up to the task of swinging through the yardarms to victory and getting the girl for good measure.

To this end, The Black Swan is wartime swashbuckling escapism, both fanciful and fairly lean in running time and resources. These, of course, were in part an effort toward wartime conservation but the reduced length does not keep it from being fulfilling. Perhaps it’s for the best they don’t make pictures like this anymore but, for its day, it’s an ebullient rollick worthy of the pirates within its frames. Maybe not its lady…

3.5/5 Stars

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

Red Dust (1932)

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My earliest recollection of knowing anything about Red Dust comes from the novel A Confederacy of Dunces where it’s recounted how the feckless oaf of a main character was born soon after his parents saw the picture being so caught up in the throes of Gable and Harlow’s cinematic passion. The fact we had this film in part to thank for such an annoying lout kept me away no fault of its own. But let’s forget Ignatius Jacques O’Reilly and cut to the picture.

The world we find ourselves in is a far-off land in Indo China on a rubber plantation. As such, Red Dust is a Pre-Code colonialist tale full of romantic heat, natives, tigers, and more heat. The only speaking part these natives are accorded belongs to the giggling cook who is not too bright as far as stereotypical Asian characters go. The tiger speaks a few times too. It’s noted more than once to be a dirty rotten country. It’s also true that to an untrained eye like my own the rubber industry looks a bit like a maple syrup colony but hardly as tasty.

The man running this particular one is named Dennis (Clark Gable). Why he could care for such a life is a worthy question and the one and only answer is that he was made for this country. It runs in his blood and he was born smelling the smells of rubber. But that doesn’t mean he wants other people in his life.

The film introduces two women in particular who test him in different ways. The first is (Jean Harlow) who gabs and gabs while pushing the boundaries of what is decent during the 1930s. She annoys the man mostly. There’s no question that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow light it up. In fact, they sizzle like hot coals. It’s often the case that true romantic chemistry that burns like this comes out of conflict and they have plenty of it.

He’s a strapping man’s man and he doesn’t want a worthless gal with a dubious reputation motoring her mouth off around him. He’s got work to do. She’s not about to be pushed around and she’s going to push all his buttons (You won’t grow up to be a big strong boy if you don’t eat your din-din ) and stay around as long as she pleases. The kerosene and gorgonzola is provided. Just stay around for the fireworks also free of charge.

This could be the picture right there. However, the new surveyor arrives, which is news enough, until it comes out that his wife is with him as well. It’s an added complication especially for Dennis because after her husband gets sick and they nurse him to a full recovery, he finds himself falling for a married woman. The difficulty is that the feelings are mutual.

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There’s a clear evocation of David and Bathsheba when Gable sends off his new surveyor into the swamps and his wife is left behind. It’s the perfect opportunity to get to know her a lot better. He knows what he is doing. She probably does too.

When the monsoon hits and Clark Gable plucks Mary Astor up and starts carrying her through the underbrush you can feel the forces of nature ripping through the country. It’s one of those precise moments when you remember why we go to the movies.

Then we also realize why Clark Gable was so popular with the ladies. He was a brash yet handsome cad. “Dreamboat” was written all over his rugged features. In the movies it spelled stardom but if this were real life it would mean disaster for true romance.

In some sense, you would think that Gable and Harlow own the picture but Astor has just as much right to it as anyone with her performance that while begging pathos is still slightly muddied by her own indiscretions. She’s not quite without fault as we find out.

But the film ends with imperfect people making certain decisions that look to preserve lives rather than utterly ruin them. Sometimes those are the most impressive feats. It’s not simply the white knights remaining untarnished but the already muddied ones willfully doing something decent. So Red Dust is a fairly landmark love story but to the credit of its cast and crew, there’s still some magic left in it even today. I won’t begrudge Red Dust anymore than I already have. It deserves that much.

Famously John Ford would remake the story as Mogambo (1953) which brought back Clark Gable 20 years later with two more ladies portrayed by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. I feel like colonialism was more in vogue during the 1930s.

4/5 Stars

The Three Musketeers (1948)

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The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

Isle of Dogs (2018)

IsleOfDogsFirstLook.jpgIt only became apparent to me after the fact that Isle of Dogs sounds quite close to “I love dogs.” You might even say there was a certain amount of forethought in this play on words. However, the pun only works in English as the Japanese pronunciation of the comparable kanji is “Inu ga shima.” Here we have the inherent beauty and simultaneously what some would deem the problematic nature of Wes Anderson’s latest film in a nutshell.

It’s necessary to lay out how I come at Isle of Dogs because it does contribute to how I perceive it. I’m Japanese-American. I’ve lived in Japan. I know some of the language though it’s an admittedly meager amount. However, I’ve invested in the culture and care about its people and fostering cross-cultural bonds. That’s part of the reason I was drawn to live there for an extended period of time, more than any pop culture infatuation with anime and manga. In those regards, I’m very much American. I also revere Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and all the rest as most cinephiles do. There you are.

Wes Anderson is someone that I genuinely admire for his aesthetic though I would never necessarily sing his praises needlessly. He doesn’t need me to defend him nor do I look to. Still, when I consider Isle of Dogs I do not see a superficial homage. As with everything he does Anderson’s film feels fairly meticulous and the stop-motion creation is phenomenally precise. Beyond that, it’s infused with Japanese tradition. Certainly, there are markers that some might deem superficial like Taiko or sumo or cherry blossoms (さくら). They are all present. 

Thus, I do worry about people who have not interfaced with Japanese culture or the people. Specifically, the character of Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig), the foreign exchange student, feels problematic. I’ve met some folks like her where they let their own personalities take control of every situation and there seems to be no sensitivity or give and take. 

Because they don’t seem to have any sense of the culture they are in or at the very least they expect others to play by their rules. Hence why many Americans including myself are only fluent in one language. An example springs to mind of Tracy wandering into a bar and hollering at the man behind the counter in English that she wants chocolate milk. Then she berates a Japanese scientist (voiced by Yoko Ono) for not doing anything in opposition to the rampant government corruption. Again, in English. 

It was fascinating that I watched the film with an audience where the majority were Japanese so they were not ignorant of their country like Tracy or I might be. But how about viewers in another pocket of the world or even back home where I come from? The audiences saw a different movie altogether with different nuances and connotations.

Some people have noted rightly that a lot of the Japanese dialogue is lost because as the opening disclaimer notes: “The humans in this film speak only in their native tongue (occasionally translated by bilingual interpreter, foreign exchange student, and electronic device). The dogs’ barks are translated into English.” Except for the dogs, that’s a large margin for error.

Even the words of the little pilot, the intrepid boy Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) are all but lost on the dogs who don’t speak human and for me as well because, again, my Japanese leaves much to be desired. But the bottom line is that he almost always intuitively knows what the pack of alpha dogs is doing. 

They have a connection. He is looking for his faithful guard dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schrieber) who has been cruelly deported by his distant uncle Mayor Kobayashi in his effort to rid the dystopian Japanese city of Megasaki of infectious dogs. Spots was the first of many canines to be deported to the putrid rubbish pile of Trash Island. There you have the film’s plot but it relies on the fact that the boy and the dogs work together.

It goes back to that core tenet of society that dog is man’s best friend. And strip away any amount of visual artistry or cultural layering and that fact remains universal. Kobayashi is a cat person and we surmise his decision was merely a vendetta against canines (going back generations) more than any scientific evidence would suggest. 

To be honest, it never feels like Anderson is putting out a giant placard with film references at least not like Tracy with her megaphone. If anything the film conjures up one of Japan’s great national heroes the faithful dog Hachiko. Any traveler to Tokyo will recognize his statue in Shibuya but he is a cultural icon — emblematic of the same bond expressed in this story.

It’s still an Anderson film and as such, I never get emotionally connected with the material (actually maybe I take that back; stop-motion dogs suffering is heartbreaking to watch) nor do I gel with his very personal idiosyncrasies all the time.

But somehow, though the film’s cultural representations and relationship with Japan are flawed, nevertheless it left me more impressed than anything. It seemed like a degree of care was taken. And in the end, this story of canines has moments that unquestionably do resonate with me.

I thought I would have more problems with all the quality voice talent distracting from the story itself and it happened at times where I was stuck on Jeff Goldblum or Bill Murray but more often than not it didn’t seem like one voice stole the show. It was a story that involved many voices.

Some that we are able to understand, others that we can only gather bits and pieces of. But for me personally, rather than that being a deterrent I find it fascinating that the same film can play differently for different audiences and that native Japanese speakers can be in on the movie in a way that I never could.

It’s not that we don’t deserve to know that part of the story necessarily or need to be singled out because we don’t know the language but isn’t that one of the confounding things about culture and language? Oftentimes we don’t understand one another and need to find points of mutual understanding. Things get lost in translation and I think one could make the argument that this happens in Isle of Dogs purposely.

Certainly, Wes Anderson doesn’t know Japanese culture like the back of his hand. In an interview, he said he’s been to Japan some but his references were namely Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. And yet if that is true, it still feels as if he’s surrounded himself with some voices different than his own even if his typical ensemble is in place.

We have Kunichi Nomura with input on the script and voice duty for Mayor Kobayashi. More include Akira Takayama, Mari Natsuki, Akira Ito and then better-known names like Nojiro Noda, Yoko Ono, and Ken Watanabe. That’s not to mention the countless other Japanese contributors whose names scrolled by with the end credits.

Admittedly this is only my perception of the film but when I watch it, I never feel like it is assuming the primacy of the English speaking audience or if it is then that assumption gets slyly subverted. I mentioned already that the character of Tracy often speaks in English, in her opposition to Mayor Kobayashi or to the man serving up drinks at the bar counter.

The implicit understanding is that the Japanese characters understand the English being spoken but they choose instead to respond in their native language. So they have met us half way but have we met them? Learning Japanese is difficult, maybe even impractical, but growing our cultural literacy comes in many forms that would only assist in deepening our ties with one another. Only later did I realize that Tracy, the “white savior” as it were, essentially fails in her attempts. If anything she needs the help of an audacious Atari, his guard dog, and the nameless hacker from her school. Without them she is powerless.

As is often the case, certain people use their voices and assertive personalities to push themselves into the limelight unwittingly but those people would be nothing without the taciturn heroes who willingly stay in the periphery until they need to stand up. While Tracy turns me off slightly in fiction and in real life, it’s the others like Atari that resonate with me. Just as the tale of dogs in both camaraderie and loyalty rings a universal note.

However, I realize only now that I didn’t talk much about the actual mechanics and formalistic aspects of the movie but I’ve spoken my peace. Do with it what you will.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: Two articles that I found interesting on this topic were the following: What “Isle of Dogs” Gets Right About Japan and Justin Chang’s Isle of Dogs Review