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Dr. M schlägt zu (1972)
By the numbers Franco film
Jess Franco, I love his films (The Sadistic Baron von Klaus; Venus in Furs), and I hate his films (Lust for Frankenstein; Female Vampire). Sometimes I love and hate them at the same time (Oasis of the Zombies). One of his best films is The Awful Dr. Orloff, a film that I re-watched just a couple days before viewing Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse. The latter film suffers badly in comparison.
Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse borrows a great deal from the first Orloff film. Mabuse (Jack Taylor) has both a female assistant and a hulking Frankenstein monster henchmen in the Morpho vein. Said monster ends up turning against its master because of love (or lust) for a woman. The climactic showdown between cop and monster in both Mabuse and the first Orloff film are strikingly similar. If that was not enough, both films rely on bums out fishing to provide the police with a clue to the villains' hideout. Oh, and of course, both films deal with the abduction of a stripper. Although, strangely, in the print that I saw, Mabuse had less nudity than The Awful Dr. Orloff.
I know that some Franco fans like the way his films intersect, but, to me, The Vengeance of Dr. Mabuse shows a lazy director dropping in plot points from a movie he made better a decade before.
Finally, in all of the other Dr. Mabuse films, the man is a master criminal. He does not work for others! Yet, this Mabuse alludes to the trouble he and his cohorts will be in from "the organization" if they abandon the project. Mabuse as a mafia stooge. . . what a let down!
La llamada del vampiro (1972)
Euro horror fans could do worse
Curse of the Vampire is an enjoyable enough Spanish horror movie as long as one keeps his expectations in check.
Dr. Dora Materlick, a hot looking blonde, comes to a small Spanish village to investigate a strange outbreak of anemia. The locals believe it is the work of vampires. An ill baron asks Materlick to stay in his castle. Materlick and her assistant, a hot looking brunette, accept the invitation. There, they meet the Baron's son Karl, a morose man who speaks in riddles and longs for his cousin Margaret, who is now gone. The anemia stumps Materlick, so she calls in a blood analysis, who is (you got it!) a hot looking redhead.
The three ladies (and Margaret after she is resurrected) spend a good portion of the movie running around the castle in nighties (and sometimes less). As a horror film, The Curse of the Vampire comes up with one original idea. The vampires appear normal, going about in the day and living their lives, until a full moon rises. Then, they sport fangs and hunger for blood. The film cleverly reveals this when a character is looking at his reflection in a mirror and the reflection suddenly vanishes. That is a good scene, but the film saves its trump card for the end.
Many fans of Euro-horror love it when a film goes off the rails, throws out all coherency, and travels into psychedelic territory. Black Magic Rites (aka The Reincarnation of Isabel) comes to mind as one glorious example. In its final ten minutes, Curse of the Vampire does just that and ends up better living up to the title The Vampire's Night Orgy than the Helga Line movie that bears that title. Make sure one stays to the end!
Curse of the Vampire does occasionally suffer from that awkward pacing one finds in some Euro-horror during scenes where the plot dominates. The real "fun" does not start until about the halfway point (when the reflection vanishes from the mirror). However, as Spanish horror goes, I would say Curse of the Vampire compares favorably with most of the Waldemar Daninsky movies. It is not essential 70's Euro-horror viewing. However, fans looking for new thrills after watching Argento, Fulci, and company, will find that Curse of the Vampire scratches that itch.
Samuel Fuller ends with a so-so TV movie
Samuel Fuller's last "film" is a French TV movie, Tinikling or The Madonna and the Dragon. While the end results are certainly watchable, it is not much of a swan song considering the director's reputation.
Simon (Luc Merenda) and Patty (Jennifer Beals) are divorced photojournalists who find they are both covering a violent election in the Phillipines. The plot hinges on a photograph that Simon takes of a soldier executing a villager. The government (the Marcos regime) want the photo to destroy it. The rebels want to publish the photo and turn the quickly approaching election in favor of the underdog. Along the way the reporters pick up a street kid nicknamed King, who one group will use as a bargaining chip for the roll of film.
Tinikling opens with an old man diligently saying the Lord's prayer. The camera pulls back to reveal an armed soldier preparing to execute the old man. This is the type of in-your-face sensationalism that Fuller specializes in. There are other such bits sprinkled throughout the film. At one point, the journalists are descended upon by a mob of garbage dealing children with spears. Toward the end, a villain is unexpectedly and surprisingly assassinated, the violence seeming to appear out of nowhere. One wishes the film had more of these violent nuggets, as it plays out rather lifelessly at other times.
The acting is somewhat hard to judge. The copy I saw was in English with Japanese subtitles, and some of the performances appear to be dubbed. Regardless, most of the actors were fine. Luc Merenda gives a solid performance as Simon, the cynical photojournalist. Top billed Jennifer Beals, as Simon's idealistic ex-wife, is merely fair, credible in quiet moments but overdoing the more emotional scenes. Fuller took some heat in previous films for casting his wife Crista Lang. However, Lang is quite good here as Mama, the shrewed casino/brothel owner whom Simon owes five grand to. Speaking of the Fuller family, my favorite performance was by the director himself playing Patty's editor. Fuller may not be a master thespian, but he knows the world of journalism, and he has energy. Beals's best acting moment is with Fuller as her scene partner.
Tinikling or the Madonna and the Dragon can be skipped by non-Fuller fans. Although it has some aspects to recommend it, most viewers are going to find the film too familiar and rather unremarkable. However, Fuller fans might find more to enjoy.
Le casse (1971)
As an adaptation of the David Goodis novel. . .
I have been reading the work of David Goodis, an American writer who wrote dark thrillers in the 1940's and 1950's. After reading the novels, I have been watching (or re-watching) the film adaptations. Goodis's work has been adapted by Francois Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), Delmer Daves (Dark Passage), and Samuel Fuller (Street of No Return), among others. Henri Verneuil's film adaptation of Goodis's The Burglar is best watched on its own terms rather than as an adaptation.
The Burglars (film) keeps a great deal of the plot from The Burglar (novel). A group of burglars (three men and a young woman) are in the process of robbing emeralds from a house when a policeman (two in the novel) spots their getaway car. The leader of the burglars (Azad in the movie, Harbin in the novel) convinces the policeman/policemen that his car has broken down. The police car leaves and the robbery is finished. Everything appears fine, but then come the complications. A beautiful woman comes out of nowhere and begins to make eyes at Azad/Nat, setting up a love triangle with the female burglar. In addition, the policeman (or one of the policemen in the novel) wants the emeralds for himself, setting up a game of cat and mouse.
All of the above summary fits both the movie and the novel. The big difference is in tone. The movie is trying to be a crowd pleaser. The tone is mostly light, giving Jean-Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif a chance to play off of each other. There is a fun car chase and a funny scene in a restaurant where the policeman insists on ordering the burglar's food. Also, the catchy Ennio Morricone score reflects the film's lighthearted mood (I own the soundtrack). On the downside, The Burglars is a little overlong and mostly wastes Dyan Cannon. In addition, while fun to watch, there is not much to reflect upon when it is over.
The novel The Burglar goes into much darker territory. It is a noir story, where the criminal hero finds himself struggling in traps both real and emotional as he balances two very different women and tries to survive the corrupt policeman. This policeman is not the cool, dashing Omar Sharif but an unhinged psychopath with no qualms about resorting to murder.
Here is an example of how film and novel handle a similar section. In both, the female burglar is sent away after the job. In both, the hero, Azad/Harbin, has to go and retrieve her. In the film, he resorts to riding around in a clown car, literally a car done up with a giant clown on the front, broadcasting an advertisement for the coming circus. This works in the film because The Burglars is the equivalent of a trip to the circus. However, the novel records its hero's journey with unease dripping from the pages.
"Then the road sign was past them and in front of them was the black and the booming storm. Harbin had an odd feeling they were a thousand miles away from Atlantic City and a thousand miles away from anywhere. He tried to convince himself the Black Horse Pike was a real thing and in daylight it was just another concrete road. But ahead of him now it looked unreal, like a path arranged for unreal travel, its glimmer unreal, black of it unreal with the wet wild thickness all around it."
The Burglars is an enjoyable enough heist picture, but The Burglar is a novel that gut punches the reader.
Dark Passage (1947)
Faithful adaptation of the David Goodis novel
I watched Dark Passage about fifteen years ago and had not remembered much about it, but I recently became interested in the fiction of David Goodis. After reading the novel Dark Passage, I decided to give the film adaptation another chance. I was surprised by how faithful the film was to the Goodis source novel.
Either the Production Code or the studio insisted on a few changes. Bob and Madge are turned, rather illogically, into a bickering, engaged couple instead of an estranged, married one. I suppose someone did not like the idea of Lauren Bacall's character dating (albeit, casually) a married man. In addition, Vincent's hallucinations during his surgery have been altered, so they no longer provide a clue to the killer's identity (they should have been dropped altogether). Finally, the film adds a final passage to the Goodis story to provide a slightly more optimistic ending (similar to what Shawshank Redemption added to "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption").
Having acknowledged all of that, I am surprised by how much of Goodis's book remains. Goodis is a novelist of characters. Perhaps, then, I should not be surprised that the best scenes deal with supporting characters. The great scene between Vincent and the cabbie is almost verbatim from the book. Some might think that the scene stops the story, but it is a small, perfect sequence in both book and film (great playing between Bogart and Tom D'Andrea in that scene). The portrayal of Dr. Coley by Houseley Stevenson is dead on. The plastic surgeon may be world weary, but he has his own code of ethics. Finally, there is that great scene where Vincent with his new face calls on Madge Rapf (a perfect Agnes Moorehead). It's the one scene in the film that needed to be in color to highlight the orange motif, even if the dialogue is pure noir.
This last example also highlights the film's one, big weakness. I know this is a minority opinion, but, I don't particularly like Lauren Bacall. Despite the fact that she and Bogart were a couple, I believe that Bogart had more screen chemistry with Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca), Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon), Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place), and Ida Lupino (High Sierra). Meanwhile, Bacall has always struck me as a rather cold presence. I simply do not know what this Vincent would see in this Irene. By contrast, that scene between Vincent and Madge, where he is pumping her for information as she is contemplating a pumping of a different kind, is smoldering with sexual tension. Of course, in Vincent's case the tension is an act, but there is still more heat with Madge (act or not) than in any of the scenes with Irene.
Lauren Bacall aside, Dark Passage is a good film. The film uses the San Francisco locations nicely. The film was daring in having Vincent's face being impossible to see for the first half (before he becomes Bogart). Lastly, there are those great characters brought to life by wonderful character actors.
Of the three David Goodis's novels I have read, Dark Passage is probably my least favorite, even though it is a good read with great parts. The film adaptation of Dark Passage is as good as the novel. How often can one say that?
Les menteurs (1961)
Dawn Addams adds fuel to light weight thriller
I saw this film under the title The Liars. The plot has a standard lovers-doing-away-with-the-rich-husband storyline. It's a mostly unremarkable film that gets a boost from the sex appeal of star Dawn Addams.
Paul, a rich older man, has returned to France after decades in Africa. Living in a country estate, the lonely Paul places an advertisement for an older woman to marry. Dominique is a low level conman who lives with Norma, an aspiring actress who adores the heel. Dominique sees the advertisement for a wife and smells money. He gets Norma to pass herself off as his forty-something mother (by apparently just putting on a wig and glasses). Paul is taken with Norma, and the couple marry. Dominique fakes a broken leg, so that he can move in with his new stepfather and "mother."
That is pretty much the set up. The rest of the film consists of a series of cat and mouse games. The young couple sneak off for sex, and Paul keeps nearly catching them. Dominique plots Paul's death, and Paul becomes increasingly suspicious of his stepson. Norma is caught in the middle, in lust with Dominique but also liking Paul.
The Liars includes odd throw away touches of humor. The driver chauffeuring Paul from the airport drives like a maniac for no apparent reason. Toward the end, a group of young layabouts (beatniks?) descend on Paul's château and make the place a shambles. All of this is to make a thin story all the more lighter, nor does the plot throw the audience much in the way of surprise. In fact, The Liars would be a completely dismissible film if not for Dawn Addams. The stunning Addams is the one reason to watch the film. I just wished the film had given her character more to do.
The first film version of the Strugatsky brothers novel
Recently, Aleski German's adaptation of Hard to be a God, a science fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, hit DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Video. Meanwhile, the first adaptation of the novel has remained obscure and hard to see.
For those unfamiliar with the novel or its adaptations, the story concerns a planet similar to Earth that is undergoing its own version of the middle-ages. A group of scientists from Earth are studying the planet. To do so, they are living among the people as if they were natives. The scientists are to remain objective, interacting enough with the King and his court to keep up appearances but not enough to upset the time period. When Don Reba, a rising lord, tries to seize power with the help of the church, one scientist finds it hard to remain objective.
The novel's two film adaptations take very different routes. Aleski German's 2013 adaptation is an art film very concerned with its ambiance. It places the viewer in an unknown world and forces him to decipher it, much like a scientist. This results in a unique, visually striking film but also an often inaccessible motion picture. On the other hand, director Peter Fleischmann's 1989 adaptation is a far more viewer friendly film. It sets up its story and characters in a traditional and easy to follow way. The viewer does not need to be familiar with the source novel to understand the film (something not always true of the Aleski German adaptation). The downside of this approach is that Fleischmann's film seems merely ordinary, unremarkable.
Fleischmann's adaptation follows the Strugatsky novel fairly closely. I don't remember the peasant revolt taking up so much space, and it certainly didn't play into the climax. I was disappointed by this ending because the scientist Rumata never loses himself in the violence the way he does in the novel. An optimism shines through the ending of Fleischmann's Hard to be a God that is absent from both the Strugatsky and Aleski German versions.
Another point of contention is that while the Aleski German adaptation seems timeless, Fleischmann's film shows its era. The desert look and stone walled castles remind one of other fantasy films from that decade (Krull; Hundra). The hero in his white wig calls to mind Connor MacLeod in the Scottish scenes from the first Highlander movie. Finally, the 1989 film has an ill-advised ending theme song (in English) whose chorus bears a passing resemblance to Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is."
Nonetheless, the Peter Fleischmann film is a fair adaptation of the source novel. Fans of the book should be modestly satisfied. Finally,it should be noted that film director Werner Herzog appears at the beginning of the film playing an imprisoned scientist.
In the Nick (1960)
Justifiably forgotten British comedy/drama
In the Nick is a forgotten British film, and, after seeing it, one can easily understand why. The film is not really bad, yet it never rises above the mediocre.
Four youngish hooligans are sentenced to an experimental correctional facility. A gate at the end of the drive replaces bars on windows. Dorm rooms replace cells. An emphasis on rehabilitation replaces punishment. The four friends settle in for an easy one year sentence. Then, they run afoul with a rival (Ian Hendry), who handles all of the center's contraband and is considered the leader of the prisoners. In addition, a new psychologist (Andrew Newley) takes an interest in the four friends, wanting to prove, through them, that rehabilitation works.
The first response a viewer might have is to ask why these four were chosen. It is not on account of their youth, since, while most of the center's prisoners appear somewhat young looking, there are also some middle-aged faces in the crowd. Nor, were the four picked as first time offenders, since as the psychologist mentions one of them has been in prison "five of the last ten years." It appears the four were picked just because. This laissez-faire approach to sentencing does cause Get Carter fans to hold out hope that Michael Caine might show up and abuse Ian Hendry some more, but, alas, he does not.
The second response a viewer might have is to wonder what mood the film is trying for. In the Nick is clearly meant to be light entertainment. The four friends find a secret passage out of the center - a swinging bookcase, no less - and set up an egg smuggling ring. Yet, despite this outlandishness, the film is not particularly funny. Furthermore, the psychologist storyline is played relatively straight (except for a love triangle that involves a girlfriend of one of the prisoners). This leaves the viewer uncertain of how seriously he or she should take the film.
In the Nick is professionally made. The film was shot in scope, so some amount of time and effort went into its production. The film is watchable, and, yet, it does not leave one with much. There is nothing here to make this film stand out. As a result, it's forgotten soon after viewing. This fact might explain why there are no other reviews posted for In the Nick.
Underrated Marcel Carne fantasy
Juliette or the Key of Dreams is seldom mentioned in discussion of Marcel Carne's filmography. However, the film works as an attempt to make a modern, adult fairy tale. One of the other reviewers referenced Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, which is a fair comparison. True, Juliette is not in the same league as the Cocteau film, but, then, few films are.
The film begins in the real world. Michel is in prison. At first, the viewer is uncertain of his crime. What is clear is that he is lonely and heartbroken. One of the other prisoners makes the comment that he could escape in his dreams. This is what Michel does. Most of what follows is one long dream. Michel is searching for his love Juliette. He goes to a village of forgetfulness. Everyone who resides in the village eventually loses his or her memory. Juliette has lost hers as well, but something stirs in her when she sees Michel. Unfortunately, a rich count who resides in an empty castle also has eyes for Juliette. In other words the viewer is given a hero, a quest, a princess, a villain, and a castle, the items of a fairy tale.
Juliette or The Key of Dreams contains some great scenes. One of these is a celebration where fortune tellers offer to read the villagers' pasts. A salesman sells mementos from vacations never taken and memories never made. As the film goes on, the viewer realizes that, by dreaming, Michel is not just trying to escape from prison but also to escape from the entire circumstances that separated Juliette from him. Michel's dream is much brighter than his reality, but, of course, no one can dream forever.
Juliette or the Key of Dreams should be better known. It features an intriguing premise, good actors, and a moving ending. Pleasant, that describes the whole viewing experience.
Trudno byt bogom (2013)
A triumph of set design but. . .
Aleski German's Hard to be a God may be the most difficult science fiction film ever made. It is a film that will divide viewers. I was excited to see the film since I had liked the Strugatsky brothers' novel that the film is based upon. In addition, the film had been compared to Andrei Tarkovsky who directed one of my favorite films, Stalker, also based on a novel by Arkaday and Boris Strugatsky (Roadside Picnic). After about a half hour of watching Hard to be a God, I was somewhat less excited.
On a strictly visual level, Hard to be a God is amazing. The film takes place on a planet, similar to Earth, that is going through its middle ages. Aleski German gives the viewer this world unfiltered. The set design is the film's strongest asset. Mud, eternally gray skies, strange armor with demonic horns, and faces, faces like a out of a fresco, these keep one watching. The only two films I can think of by way of comparison are Fellini Satyricon and Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. Hard to be a God lags behind those two films (Aleski German is not on the level as Federico Fellini or Sergei Eisenstein). Furthermore, German spends so much time on the set design that he neglects the story.
The Strugatsky brothers created a story about power plays and showed how a scientist became a killer. The background was the fictional middle ages. Aleski German places the middle ages in the foreground and shoves the story into the background. True, German keeps much of the Strugatsky's story but downplays them to such a degree that viewers unfamiliar with the novel will have a hard time following it. The royal assassinations which begin the violence happen off screen. The love affair between the protagonist and the peasant girl, which leads to the turning point of the book, is barely in the film. Only one thing interests the director: the world he has created. It is an amazing world. I certainly cannot dismiss a film that looks like this.
I am glad that I struggled through all three hours of Hard to be a God once. However, I think for repeat viewings one needs to have something more than just grand, moving pictures. One needs either deep themes (like in Tarkovsky's Stalker), or an intriguing character, or simply a good story. Set design will only take a film so far.