Monday, August 3, 2015

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004) Dir- Wes Anderson

I didn't get it.

What I remember:

I have a strange relationship with Wes Anderson. I feel like I should like his films. Yet for some reason I generally can't stand them. They're just so damned precious, you know? Sure, they all have a bit of an edge, yet I can't help but think to myself, "where's the beef?" It feels like every punch is pulled, every kiss is on the cheek, and even when the stakes are high on paper, they seem inconsequential on screen. 
Anderson's humor is supposed to be one of his signature qualities, and I know a lot of people enjoy it. For me, the jokes are all telegraphed: I know the punch lines before they are delivered. I particularly felt this way when watching "The Royal Tennenbaums". I remember thinking that when “The Life Aquatic” was released, that surely Bill Murray in the lead role would be the antidote to these falling flat gags. I mean, when has Bill Murray not been funny? As I recall, in this film.

So here's the question; is it a hip diffidence on display, or just everything being held at arm's length? Is it dry, urbane wit or just bad comic timing? Is it stiff-upper-lip WASPy cool, or just an inability to convey real emotion?

Yes, I'm aware that was three questions. You are very good at counting. 

All righty then, the real question becomes; is Wes Anderson's genius just beyond my appreciation, or did "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" suck Jaguar Shark balls? Let's watch it again and get the answer.

After re-watching:

I know, honey. Look at the map. We go your way, that's about four inches. We go my way, it's an inch and a half. You wanna pay for the extra gas? -Steve Zissou


Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is a Jacques Cousteau type television/film personality who specializes in undersea photography and wildlife. His friend and partner was eaten by a giant “Jaguar Shark”, and Steve is on a mission to find and maybe get revenge against this possibly mythic creature. Along for the voyage is his ex-wife/manager (Anjelica Huston), his bastard son (Owen Wilson), a pregnant magazine reporter on whom he has a crush (Cate Blanchett), a financial auditor sent by his Producer, and of course his crew. Complications arise from everywhere, including pirates and a rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum).


Maybe I missed this upon the first viewing, but I do believe that “The Life Aquatic” is an allegory for the process of filmmaking, and that Anderson is really showing us the wacky and unpredictable world of an obsessive filmmaker such as himself. Steve Zissou is a childish, petulant, courageous, jealous and ultimately likable main character. It’s a part few actors could pull off, but Murray is the perfect fit. Sadly, he doesn’t get a lot of just plain funny moments. Much of it is “I’m laughing on the inside” stuff. I think the word is “amusing”. Anderson seems to revel in these lead characters that you both love and hate. Maybe this is how he sees himself. 

What’s truly odd about this is that Anderson's films are run as tightly as Zissou’s world is loose. The entire operation on his boat, “The Belafonte”, is one bad piston from going under it seems. Compared to his competitor, Alistair Hennessey, his equipment looks like something from Popeye. In this way the allegory seems false. Anderson feels like the ultimate control freak, with every shot perfectly composed. 

So if it’s NOT an allegory, then what the hell is it? I guess it’s somewhat entertaining, but I really don’t get what the point of the movie is. Again I return to my issue with Wes Anderson. If the film doesn’t hit me emotionally, and there is no greater societal or psychological issue involved, then it better make me laugh or scare/thrill the hell out of me. I’d say these are all swings and misses, except for the feeling that Anderson is just standing at home plate with the bat resting on his shoulder. 


The two films I enjoy by Anderson are "Rushmore" and "Moonrise Kingdom", both of which fit snugly into the Anderson canon, but in both cases I connected emotionally to the material much stronger than his other films. That's funny, since you would think "The Royal Tennenbaums" is much closer to my childhood experiences than anything else. Regardless, it is the juxtaposition of Anderson's style and the subject matter which is at the root of my problem. In the case of "Moonrise Kingdom", the subjects of summer camp and puppy love really fit Anderson's style. Children see the world in much the same way that Anderson does. There is a wide-eyed innocence interlaced with a touch of the sardonic. 
The subject matter of "The Life Aquatic"; broken relationships, egotistical artists, single parenthood, delinquent fathers--these are hardly subjects for the childlike treatment we see here. Seeing the world through Anderson's lens, not to mention the music by Mark Mothersbaugh and the animation by Henry Selick, is very much a trip into the imagination of a youngster. 
As usual, I could forgive this disconnect if I found myself laughing heartily throughout. An occasional chuckle was about all I could muster. Instead of working with Owen Wilson, as he had done in the past, Anderson’s screenwriting partner this time was filmmaker Noah Baumbach. Baumbach’s films are uneven to say the least, but he is certainly a like minded soul to Anderson when it comes to innocence and irony. Basically he’s another kvetcher in the wry. 

I made that up! You like that?

Anderson's penchant for symmetry and color are beautifully on display in the "Life Aquatic". The crew's color uncoordinated pastel blue uniforms and cherry red knit hats are central to setting off the beautiful sea photography. Combined with the animated fish and creatures, the film is a feast for the eyes.

As for the ears, well if you are not a huge Mothersbaugh fan (such as I), then you do get the benefit of Brazilian star Seu Jorge singing Portuguese versions of classic David Bowie hits like "Rebel Rebel". Jorge is also in the cast as one of the crew members. I will say that Mothersbaugh's scores match the quirkiness of Anderson's stories and visuals in almost lockstep. If you like what you're watching you will probably like what you're hearing. 


As stated above, the complexity of Zissou's character is perfectly portrayed by Murray. He may not be much of a chameleon ala Hoffman, Streep or the other Hoffman, but he picks the right roles for his demeanor and humor. I almost can't imagine anyone else doing this part. Murray is kind of a plain looking version of Cary Grant.
Even at his most frazzled there is a cool relaxed undercurrent. It’s like they are participating and observing at the same time. They don’t exactly break the 4th wall, but they certainly hint at it.

The rest of the cast is a dream repertory. Blanchett and Willem Dafoe in particular are joys, and Goldblum does his part. Owen Wilson, who is probably as close to a partner as Wes Anderson has, brings his slightly whiney, slightly cocky persona to the part of the estranged bastard son. His innocence doesn’t seem even slightly forced. 

The only one-note performance in the film is, sadly, from Anjelica Huston, who is normally one of the main reasons to watch anything she is in. The role of the ex-wife and manager is one of constant disapproval. Maybe it was just written that way, but there is no sense from her that she cares for Zissou, or ever did. She never cracks a smile, and plays the whole film with the same expression on her face. What a waste!


Yes, this was definitely better upon second viewing. As I read my complaints above, it seems I am being rather picky, and not giving the film the credit it is due for it’s creative juice and phenomenal production values. Compared to some of the junk I’ve watched lately, why, it’s a great work! The cast is wonderful, the visuals and animations are superb. But seriously, couldn’t it have been just a bit funnier? All that quirk and not one side-splitting scene. I am also reminded of my freshman year film teacher, who’s reaction to my 1st short was; “So why did you make this film?” Somehow, I always feel like that at the end of a Wes Anderson movie. 

On First Look: ✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Southern Comfort" (1981) Dir- Walter Hill

What I Remember:

It seemed for a long time this was on Netflix streaming, then suddenly…poof! Gone, from streaming AND disc. I couldn’t find it to rent anywhere. Then, on a whim I did a YouTube search and there it was…the full movie! What is the deal with that? Why can you stream on every site some titles that are so miserably bad that they should have their original reels destroyed in a Nazi-esque book burning ceremony, but other wonderful films like “Southern Comfort” are harder to find than an Easter Egg hidden in the Himalayas? 

This was one of the first films I wrote down to be rewatched when I started this blog in 2011, 4 years ago. It’s taken me that long to find it. I saw it in the theater with my then girlfriend, and we were both blown away. It is a classic allegory film, starring the Louisiana National Guard as the US Armed Forces, and the Bayou dwelling Cajuns as the Viet Cong. It is as convincing an argument for “Why we shouldn’t go in there” as anything I’ve ever seen. 

Walter Hill was fairly established when this came out.  "The Warriors” was a breakthrough film for him, and was one of the most ridiculous yet entertaining movies you will ever see. New York City taken over by fighting street gangs with coordinated Halloween costumes, was probably a perfect pubescent male fantasy of violence and implied sex. He followed this with a James Gang movie called “The Long Riders” which did well. After “Southern Comfort”, he directed maybe the most successful film of his career, “48 Hours”. Then his arc began a descent; “Streets of Fire” (probably only remembered for it’s huge hit “I Can Dream About You”), the poorly executed buddy comedy “Brewster’s Millions”, which squandered the teaming of two of the greatest comedians of the time, Richard Pryor and John Candy, and then the ill-advised “Crossroads”, wherein teen heartthrob Ralph Macchio tries to convince us all that he is the Italian-American reincarnation of the legendary Delta Blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson. 


“Crossroads” plays like “The Bottleneck Kid”, complete with a black bluesman version of Mr. Miyagi and a huge showdown for a climax (against the "Devil’s Guitarist", played by Steve Vai!). The only thing they didn’t do is have him break his hand and hold the bottleneck with his teeth. Wax on, wax off, diminished chord, dominant 7th. What a joke.

So yes, Most of these films are short on realism. WAY short. For some reason, that is the complaint about “Southern Comfort”. Most critics maligned the film’s portrayal of National Guardsmen as poorly trained dumbasses. That critique is probably on-target. However as an analogy, it is perfect. American troops were as ill prepared to deal with Viet Cong guerrilla tactics as Lindsay Lohan was to portray Elizabeth Taylor. 

I think once you buy into the allegorical concept behind “Southern Comfort”, it all makes sense. Let’s watch and see if that is still the case.

After re-watching:

"Four of them with automatic weapons against some swamp rat. I make it even money. --Hardin


A Louisiana National Guard squadron is on a weekend exercise in the Bayou, armed only with maps and blanks. When their map steers them in the wrong direction, they are confronted with a lake that prevents their progress. Finding some dugout canoes, they decide to borrow them and cross the lake, leaving one behind for the native Cajuns to retrieve their boats. As they cross, the natives appear on the shore where the boats were found, and joking around, one of the guardsmen fires blanks at the Cajuns. The Cajuns, unaware that this is a joke, fire back and kill the Commanding Officer. All of them scramble and panic, tipping over the canoes and ruining radios and losing their compasses. Stranded, they now have to find a way out of the bayou swamp while being pursued by the natives.


There is no mistaking the allegory in this film. In case you missed it, it becomes painfully clear in the climactic sequence, when our two main characters, Hardin (Powers Boothe) and Spencer (Keith Carradine) are “rescued” and find themselves in a backwater Cajun village, amidst the enemy. The Cajuns are presented as happy people, living well off the grid without the use of phones, but complete with food and culture and a society pretty much working and prospering. They are not bloodthirsty barbarians. By 1981, we all understood that the Vietnamese were fighting for their right of self-determination, which they had been doing for decades against the French, Chinese and the USA. We also understood that, left to their own devices, they would be just fine, regardless of what system they chose to govern themselves. 

But what we really understood was that this nation of poorly armed, under-educated and poverty stricken people kicked our ASSES at the one thing we were supposed to be the best at-- war. 
How could this happen? The great line in this movie comes when our soldiers finally have an English conversation with one of the Cajuns (Brion James- known for playing Leon the replicant in “Blade Runner", and ironically a veteran of the National Guard) , and they ask why this is happening. “You come down here and you fuck with us!”, is the Cajun's response. A word to the wise for all Colonialists. 
The real question is, why do we keep doing this? Putting ourselves in these positions where we try and take over or beat down other nations? Why do we go ahead and invade Iraq after 9-11? Why do we try a Bay of Pigs invasion? A Cambodian incursion? 

Cue Peter, Paul and Mary. "When will they ever learn? When will they ehhhhhhhhhver learn?"


I really think that this film stands apart from Hill's other work in it's artistic standards, which are very high. The cinematography, the use of music and much of the film language represent the best of this era. There is a direct reference to one of my favorite Hal Ashby devices in an early scene. Right after the CO gets shot, the Guardsmen are moving through the swamps and arguing/ discussing the  situation. Their face to face arguments are superimposed over the actual trudging through the swamps. This is not the kind of thing you expect to see in a movie like "48 Hours" or "Crossroads". 

A lot of the deaths of these guardsmen are telegraphed by the director, which takes away from the originality and unpredictability of the movie. "OK, Cribbs. You're on the point". Cribbs complains but takes it. Oh gee, you think, why is it important to show us this? Because....wait for it, BAM!!..a Cajun impaling device gets sprung when the lead guy steps on it. Later, Stuckey, in a panic to try and wave down the search helicopters runs off by himself. Yep…he’s a goner. This time it’s quicksand. The CO’s death is the only one you don’t really see coming.

Since I've already spent some time on Hill, I'd like to discuss Andrew Laszlo who shot the film, and Ry Cooder who scored it. Laszlo did 3 films with Hill, including "Warriors" and "Streets of Fire". He was a Hungarian  born concentration camp survivor, who emigrated to the USA and became a combat photographer for the Korean War. Talk about qualified! 
I can't give enough credit to him for the look of this film. It is astonishingly beautiful. The contrast between this peaceful beauty and the tense, violent situation is striking. The scene in the Cajun village is also beautifully shot. It feels as if you are right there amongst the natives, and the dull colors of their clothes and shacks are contrasted with the red of the crawfish, the pigs blood, and eventually the blood of our lead characters and that of the hunters. 

The music is mostly Ry Cooder's achingly atmospheric slide guitar work. Cooder, of course, played for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and more. The soundtrack is awash with sloshing, bird calls and Cooder's sinuous sound. It reflects Laszlo's work perfectly, and accomplishes the same feat of contrasting the natural beauty with this invasive force. 


This film is not poorly acted. In fact, everybody does a fine job with what they were given. That is the issue, however, because these characters are paper thin. We've got; 
1) your thorny but respected CO, 
2) your horny but generally intelligent wise-ass, 
3) your religious nut-job, 
4) your violent sociopath, 
5) your total redneck dumbass, 
6) your goofy black guy, 
7) your easily spookable black guy,
8)  your officious but clueless 2nd-in-command, 
and of course, 
9) your strong, silent outsider. 

What? No room for the tough Italian guy from Joisy or the poetry quoting intellectual from Boston? I mean, couldn't we have spent a little time giving these people something deeper? 

Keith Carradine’s wiseass is probably the best drawn character, which is not saying much. He does a fine job, although his California accent is not even dropped for a second. He sounds as much from New Orleans as McNulty from the "The Wire"  sounded like he was from Baltimore.  Just a couple of drawled vowels would have been nice.

Fred Ward is memorable as the sociopathic Reece, and he obviously is having a field day snarling his way through the dialogue and action.

Native Texan Powers Boothe plays the outsider from the El Paso, Texas National Guard, who’s been transferred to this Louisiana unit for unexplained reasons. He doesn’t want to be accepted. or for that matter be friendly with anyone. He thinks he’s smarter than them all (HAH! A Texan who thinks he’s smarter than everyone. What a riot). It's a one-note character in desperate need of another dimension.
As for the rest of this cast, Only Brion James stands out as the captured Cajun. He has some great moments, especially during a knife fight, when he starts yelling something in Cajun French, and then blurts out “KILL HIM! This is the point when you realize that he understands English. His delivery of the film’s key lines near the end is extremely powerful.  

Everybody else; nice job. We’ll see you at the next auditions for “48 Hours”.


As an allegory, “Southern Comfort” is right on, albeit a tad superficial. As an atmospheric action flick it is superb and harrowing. As a story based on real situations and real characters, it is flawed at best, and at times ridiculous. So go in and watch this for free on YouTube and put your bullshit detector in the basement drawer. You will enjoy this very much with that caveat. No, it’s not as great as I remembered, but totally deserves a better fate than having disappeared from most streaming providers.

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Lady In The Lake" (1947) Dir. Robert Montgomery

 What I remember:

Considering the fact that I read the book and saw the movie, I can’t recall anything of the plot. I guess that’s a bad sign.

Clearly I am a big fan of Film Noir and all it represents; stylish filmmaking, whodunit plots, snappy dialogue, good looking dames that may or may not be trouble. Raymond Chandler is my favorite author when it comes to source material for the genre. "Murder My Sweet" and "The Big Sleep" are favorites from the author. "The Long Goodbye" is probably the best novel by Chandler, and certainly the most original screen adaptation. Robert Altman's 70's era take is celebrated by critics and fans as being a masterpiece of the era. 

Yet nobody talks about this very original, and very strange adaptation of one of Chandler's least celebrated books featuring his main character, Phillip Marlowe. "Lady In The Lake" was actor Robert Montgomery's first solo directorial effort ( he took the helm of "They Were Expendable" when John Ford was injured).  For some reason, he decided to shoot the ENTIRE FILM in "Point-of-View" style. The film was actually advertised as "Starring you"! 

I remember being a bit annoyed at first by the film's gimmicky premise, but as it went on I enjoyed it more and more, finding it to be very effective in getting you to identify with Marlowe. I also liked the concept that an actor, when directing himself for the first time, would choose to only show himself in mirrors. It would be like a shredding rock star guitar player letting his bassist take all the solos. Or a trial lawyer letting the bailiff read his summation. Not a chance. 

After rewatching:

Adrienne: "I wonder how it would be to discuss this over a couple of ice cubes. Would you care to try?"  
Marlowe:  "Imagine you needing ice cubes."


Private Detective Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) has submitted a written up version of a recent case to a lurid magazine company to make a little extra cash. They send him a letter asking him to come in to discuss the article, but they actually want to hire him to find the publisher’s missing wife. Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), the main editor hires Marlowe, unbeknownst to publisher Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames). Fromsett has designs on Kingsby and his money, hoping that Marlowe will find Mrs. Kingsby dead or in deep trouble. Instead, Marlowe finds Mrs. Kingsby’s boyfriend dead, and he fights not to be implicated. This causes a run in with the local constabulary. More complications ensue when Marlowe and Fromsett find themselves attracted to each other.


Yeah. You just read that too. This is really a confused plot. I thought The Big Sleep was hard to follow, but this one takes the cake. It really doesn’t help that you become so distracted by the point-of-view device that you miss a lot of what’s going on. Yet one thing I always liked about Chandler was that the whodunit part of his stories always took a backseat to the real reason you read— the superb and clever dialogue (and 1st person monologues), and the bad, bad people he loved to portray. 

As for the former, what’s better than “meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s neck.” The guy really had a gift. As for the latter, I know Chandler didn’t invent the femme fatale (that was Homer, right?), but he sure perfected it. Velma from “Farewell My Lovely” was a beautiful example. Then there were the dirty cops, like DeGarmot in this film, and the thugs, crooked gamblers and businessmen that populated his world. He makes merciless fun of the good guys, and this film is no exception. Police Captain Kane is portrayed as a tough, not too smart guy, who is a sentimental fluff with his family. Kingsby is also not too bright, despite his money and publishing “empire”. 

The women, though, are smart and tough, until Marlowe breaks them down with his sharp tongue and no bullshit attitude. He’s the guy you want to be, even if it means getting your head beaten in about every twenty minutes. 

The problem here is that you never do that thing that all of these films usually get you doing…the “Ok, it’s the boyfriend”. “No, it’s gotta be the ex-wife”. “Oh I see now, it’s the dirty cop!”. That just never really happens because you are spending so much time and energy studying the camera angles and listening for the snappy retorts. The whodunit fades so far into the background as to become a McGuffin. You don’t really care who killed these people, you just kind of hope that it isn’t the woman who Marlowe has a thing for. Or maybe you DO want it to be her, because you’re a dark fuck who wants everyone to be miserable. 

Yes, I am projecting.


Of course this is the real reason to watch this film. Only twice before had there been any extended use of “subjective camera”. First in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, but then only in the opening sequence. In the same year as “Lady In The Lake”, Delmer Daves used subjective camera in his classic “Dark Passage”, wherein Bogart is wrapped in bandages for the first hour, and you see plenty of shots from his perspective, often partially occluded by the bandages. 

As I said earlier, this was the first time the gimmick was used through the entire film. There are a few exceptions. A couple of times, and especially in the prologue, he addresses the audience directly, breaking the 4th wall. Also at the end he is seen in a two shot for the big payoff kiss. Apparently this was a huge issue between Montgomery and MGM. The studio had had a lot of negative reactions to previews of the film from fans of Montgomery complaining that he was nowhere to be seen in the movie. MGM forced him to do the final scene from the normal camera position, and it was a deal breaker for the actor, who quit his contract with MGM that had been in effect for almost 20 years. He never made another film with them.

Some of the subjective sequences work really well. I was especially fond of the moments after a car accident, where you really don’t know how messed up he is, until you realize that he is crawling across the road to get to a phone booth to call for help. The camera keeps going in and out of focus so that you know he has suffered a brain injury. When he slowly drags himself to his feet, you can see how cut up his hand is and how painful each move is. Earlier in the film he starts asking pointed questions to Fromsett while the camera moves from one side of her to the other;  it’s a very cool way to show that he is pacing back and forth. 

For each of these good moments, there is an equal and opposite stinker. Often he approaches doors with incredible sluggishness, until you realize that Montgomery is giving the audience a chance to read the name on the door. When he addresses the camera it is square on and without any style or device whatsoever. Compared to the rest of the film it’s almost like watching a security camera. 

The entire film with the exception of the car chase, accident and the ensuing scene I just described, is shot indoors in small rooms. Very little lighting tricks are used; something you really miss if you are a fan of Noir. Most of the shots and angles are medium distance, 4-8 feet. The exceptions being a kiss on the lips or at the end of a fist. HA! Take that, Marlowe! (OK, I stole that line from Firesign Theater….but it still works for me!).

The music is extremely strange. David Snell and Maurice Goldman combined to give an almost entirely a cappella chorale type score. The bizarre really kicks in during the car chase scene, where normally we are used to screeching violins or symphonic crashes and swells, instead we get what sounds like choir practice in a Satanic church. You’re probably thinking that it worked great in “The Omen", right? But of course in a film with all those religious implications a choir fits perfectly. For a Noir car chase at night? Not so good.


How can we judge the star’s turn in “Lady In The Lake”? He’s almost never on camera. When he is, it’s in those really flat breaking the wall scenes or in someone’s mirror. He delivers his tough guy lines well enough, but they don’t seem to have the bite as they did coming from Bogey or even Dick Powell, who did such a fine job in “Murder My Sweet”. I don’t want to lump Elliot Gould in here, or even Bob Mitchum. Both were directed to do things very differently than our prototypical Marlowe. 
Here might be the problem….Montgomery is a little too Hollywood handsome to be this character. Maybe it’s better that he’s off camera. He’s too kempt. Even after the brutal accident or black eye that he is given, he still looks perfectly coiffed. 

However, the real problem with the acting is Audrey Totter, as Adrienne. Totter made a living as a bad girl, so much so that it ruined her chances as a big time leading lady. I’ve seen her be wonderful before, particularly in “The Set Up” and in a smaller part in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. She really seems all mixed up in “Lady in the Lake”. I think the gimmick threw her off her game. Acting to a camera must be a lot harder than to another person.  There’s just too much deliberate movement and facial machinations from her that seem very unnatural. 

Bad cop Lt. DeGarmot as played by Lloyd Nolan (yep, that nice Doctor Chegley from TV’s “Julia”) seems to have no problem with the subjective camera. He is natural, and tough and comfortable as can be. Jayne Meadows plays the woman everyone’s looking for, and at first she is speaking way too fast and it feels like she is just terrible. Later you realize that was a put on by the character posing as someone else, so all is forgiven. Still, she won’t make anyone forget about Myrna Loy.

Who’s Myrna Loy? Leave this room right now, and go fuck your selfie.


Well you can’t blame a guy for trying, can you? I mean he gets lots of pats on the back for the creative factor, but I have too say Montgomery did not pull this off. He ends up with something that is pretty much a curiosity for the film buff, but nothing of real value. Maybe he needed to get his feet wet just making a traditional film by himself first, then he could have jumped into this much more challenging project. For what it’s worth, this was never done again. In mainstream films only “Memento” comes to mind as something so stylistically audacious. That’s a lot to take on for an actor transitioning to director. Also, let’s not forget that he was also IN the film. 

Kind of.

On First Look: ✭✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, January 5, 2015

"SANJURO" (1962) Dir: Akira Kurosawa

What I remember:

WHAT? An "On Second Look” about a Kurosawa film? What’s he going to do next? Rant about how nobody liked “Citizen Kane" but him?

Hold your horses, gentle readers: I know Kurosawa is one of the great masters of cinema. He was also a very prolific filmmaker, having over 30 directing credits to his name. Many of these films, particularly “The Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon” are considered to be the finest ever made. My personal favorites in addition to those named, are "Yojimbo" (a top 10 all time for me), “Throne of Blood”, “Red Beard” and “High and Low”. 

These are films I always hear about when critics discuss the canon of the great Japanese director’s works. One I NEVER hear mentioned, however is “Sanjuro”, which could also be titled "Yojimbo 2”. It’s basically the same character played by the same actor (Toshiro Mifune) in a different situation and place. It was his next directorial effort after “Yojimbo”.

 I can’t say I remember very much about “Sanjuro”…I have a visual image of Camelias being floated down a stream to signal something. It has probably been 30 years since I have seen it. I remember thinking that the film was as good as anything Kurosawa had made, and it was made during his best period, starting with “Rashomon” in 1950 and ending with “Red Beard” in 1965. Yes, Kurosawa made some special films after, especially “Kagemusha” and “Ran”, but neither of these are on the level of those films made in that 15 year period of, well, pure mastery.

Kurosawa’s Samurai era films are certainly the most humanistic and layered of Samurai films. He represents the era in almost poetic style, with multi-faceted heroes who use their wits as quickly and effectively as their swords. These are not truly character studies, but the stories are character driven. I have seen Yojimbo many times. The same is true for “Seven Samurai”, “Throne of Blood” and “Rashomon”. I have seen “Sanjuro” just once. I loved it, and now I need to find out if it’s been forgotten due to oversight, or just that it doesn’t measure up to the masterworks by which it is surrounded.

After re-watching:

"if it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is." Sanjuro


A feudal era Japanese town is about to be taken over by corrupt forces who have captured the town's Chamberlain. His nephew and allies are doubtful of the Uncle's innocence, but a rogue Samurai (Toshiro Mifune) sets them straight, and, despite his indigent appearance, turns out to be a great warrior and a fine tactician. Even though the allied friends don't trust the Samurai, he proceeds  to help them overcome great odds to free the Chamberlain.


Don't judge a book by its cover. The End. 

OK, so it's a bit deeper and more layered than that aphorism, but essentially this is the message throughout "Sanjuro." 
From the very first scene, wherein Iori Izaka and his team are debating the veracity of Kikui the Superintendent vs. Mutsuta the Chamberlain, our hero, the rogue Samurai, chimes in with the opinion that they don't trust Mutsuta because he is not handsome, and that they trust Kikui because he is.

Obviously there's another level to this. It is self-referential, since a rogue Samurai generally struggled for wealth without a master, and Sanjuro looks destitute....unshaven and dressed in rags. But he is a fearsome warrior, and a very sharp observer. His gruff personality also belies a soft- heart. 

Almost every time that something is patently obvious to a character in “Sanjuro”, it is most certainly something else in reality. Of course this is true for the various traps set and lies spread by Kikui’s gang, but it is also true for many of the characters themselves. The gentle daughter of the Chamberlain, is “more of a samurai” than any of Izaka’s crew, according to Sanjuro. Her mother, Mrs. Mutsuta seems old and slow, but really understands Sanjuro better than anyone else in the film, maybe even better than Sanjuro himself. She is the embodiment of his conscience. “You’re too sharp.That’s your trouble”, she says, “You’re like a drawn sword. But good swords are kept in their sheath”. Later on, these words are echoed by Sanjuro when discussing his enemy, Muroto, the brains behind Kikui’s gang. Obviously this “slow” woman has had a major effect on him. 

Yes, it’s unquestionably the same character from “Yojimbo”, but a little older, a bit more world-weary. He is a reluctant Samurai, even when, unlike “Yojimbo”, he is faced with a clear-cut good vs. evil scenario. He wants to solve everything by out-smarting the bad guys, not by shedding their blood. The younger Samurai from ‘Yojimbo" liked using his brains too, but was happy to cut some people to get what he wanted. Kurosawa was a great fan of the American Western, and I have no doubt that he saw 1950’s “The Gunfighter”. Jimmy Ringo is far wealthier and with a far more extensive reputation than our Sanjuro, but that reluctance to kill again, that sense of a character haunted by his violent past is a common thread. Every time Sanjuro kills, it is because his hand is forced. And we, like him, can hear Mrs. Mutsuta talking about the “good sword”. 


“Sanjuro” just takes off right away. There is no long set-up with character backstory. The plot kicks in from the opening line. The Samurai overhears Izaka and his men come to the wrong conclusion, and he immediately recognizes they are about to be ambushed. The action kicks in, and we have met most of the important people in the film….Sanjuro, Izaka, Muroto. Good guy, victim, and bad guy. 

One of the things I love about Kurosawa is how he choreographs the movements of a group of people. Izaka’s men all jump up at the same time, all scurry forward together, all recoil together. It’s hysterically funny to watch. Kurosawa uses a lot of low angle camera, many times only showing peoples legs. But there are a few master shots, one of which was so striking I paused playback to consider the composition. While in the barn being used as a hideout, Sanjuro discusses the plan for getting the Chamberlain out of captivity. The camera is behind him looking up from almost ground level. He is supine, peering through some kind of rails at Izaka’s men who are all clearly visible in each little triangle or rectangle caused by the rails. We see Sanjuro, relaxed, calmly lying in full, but the men are uptight, all in separate little boxes. 

The film is also one of Kurosawa’s funniest. There are laugh out loud moments, something Samurai films are not known for. Sanjuro’s put-downs are pretty hard-ass, and juxtaposed with the genteel women, it provides some levity. The funniest moment is courtesy of one of my favorite characters in the film, the guard employed by Muroto who has been captured by Izaka’s men. He eventually starts to identify with them during his captivity, realizing he’s been fed bad information by Kikui. The women untie him, and he is so grateful that he stays captive even though he could run away at any time. 

The comic scene comes when Izaka’s crew realizes that a plan they have put together to get Kikui’s gang/army to leave has worked, and they start yelling and jumping up and down. Since the bad guys are right next door, they suddenly remember that they need to keep it down, so they catch themselves and continue quietly jumping up and down with grins on their faces. Then they realize the captive guard is jumping up and down with them, and they all stop. He silently turns around and heads back to his prison cell, the closet. 

You can’t talk about “Sanjuro" without talking about blood. Throughout the film, when the Samurai kills a group of people, there is NO blood. Not even a little around the bodies. The action is fast, but those of us in this post-Peckinpah world of cinema are used to copious amounts of blood in our action flicks. You start to notice the extreme lack of it after the one Tarantino-like scene wherein Sanjuro kills about 12 men. I mean, even just a bit of chocolate sauce would have done the trick for heightening the reality of these scenes. 

What you find out in the final scene is that this paucity of blood was for a grander purpose than just keeping the Hershey's bills down. It was to save it all for the showdown. The horror of that geyser of blood is incredibly jarring, very unexpected, and highly effective. This is when you realize that this is the film of a true pacifist. The real message is that, as Sting so eloquently put it, “nothing comes from violence, and nothing ever will.” 


All discussion of either “Sanjuro” or “Yojimbo” starts with the indelible portrait of an indigent Samurai by the great Toshiro Mifune. This is a character so memorable that a lampoon of him by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live was instantly recognizable by the American masses. The job of spoken word acting is only part of it; it’s the physicality of an impersonation or characterization that makes it believable. Few comics could have pulled off this parody, but Belushi was one of the best physical comedians in history. And Mifune was a phenomenal physical actor. This was never more apparent than as Sanjuro.

Mifune’s walk away shoulder twitch, his cranky eye squint upon being awakened, his sudden transformation from lazy looking, slow walking bum into a fierce killing machine—this is all the work of a master. Speaking of “The Master” (I was, wasn’t I?), the shoulder twitch is one of those leitmotif physical moves that actors use to give singularity to a character. It reminded me of Joaquin Phoenix’ portrayal of Freddie Quell in that PTA film. Phoenix’s recurring physical move was to place his arms akimbo, with his elbows behind him almost like he was imitating a chicken. To me it felt weird and forced. The Mifune shoulder twitch does not. I can not tell you why this is the case….it just is. No prejudice against Phoenix, who I thought was brilliant in “Her”. 

Many of Kurosawa’s wonderful repertory actors are in the film, most notably a personal favorite of mine, Takashi Shimura. Sadly he is underutilized as one of Kikui’s inner circle, kind of a buffoon. Shimura’s greatest role was yet to come; his brilliant portrayal of a dying bureaucrat in “Ikiru”. 

Tatsuya Nakadai, who played Muroto, is another of Kurosawa’s troupe; in fact he took over the leading man roles for the great director’s films after Kurosawa and Mifune had a well-publicized falling out. Mifune and Nakadai were close friends, despite often being on-screen rivals. In Sanjuro, he is a true bad guy, who is completely aware of it. He even calls himself “rotten" at one point, something that you might think would sound stupid, but seems perfectly in character. Can you imagine Edward G. Robinson saying,  “I’m rotten to the core, you get me?” as “Little Caesar”? 

The final showdown is made memorable not just by the gore, but by Muroto's desperation after being mentally bested by Sanjuro. His failure is too much to bear, he can’t just walk away and take the licks. 


No change in opinion this time around. This is a great film, with a deep message, a lot of humor and wonderful performances. It absolutely belongs in the discussion of the greatest sequels ever. For me, that is a very short list. The two most often cited are "Godfather Part 2" and "The Empire Strikes Back”. “The Dark Knight” and “Toy Story 2” need to be up there, and maybe even “The Wrath of Khan”. I also love “Before Sunset”. The rest of them I can pretty much do without. “Sanjuro” is probably my favorite sequel of them all. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Enemy of the State" (1998) Dir: Tony Scott

What I remember:
I have been very out there and vocal about my love for “The Conversation”, a film I have considered in my top 5 without wavering. That top 5 is, of course:
“Vertigo", “Chinatown", "Citizen Kane", "The Conversation" and "Barton Fink". What, you might ask, are the criteria to make it to such a lofty and exulted place as Wayne’s top 5 films of ALL TIME? 

Here goes:
1) They must be entertaining as hell
2) They must not have any lagging or dull moments
3) They must deal with a subject that I find fascinating
4) There must be elements of humor, no matter how weighty the subject matter
5) They must have hit an emotional chord for me
6) They must have some very original stylistic and visual elements
7) They must have provided some kind of transformative moment for me
8) The performances and dialogue have to all be spot on…no crappy miscasting
9) The music must not overpower the film, or inappropriately work against it
10) There can be no moments of anachronism or other unbelievable elements that pull me out of the film
11) Apparently from the looks of the above list, no happy ending. 

Three movies on the top 5 of the AFI Top 100 that wouldn’t cut it with the above list:
“Gone With The Wind” (#4)- There are entire swaths of this film that bore the crap out of me. Sorry, Lisa (my wife adores this film).
“Casablanca” (#2)- I love it, but let’s face it, the camera does next to nothing of interest in this movie. Some nice lighting, but that’s it.
“Lawrence of Arabia” (#5)- See “Gone With The Wind”.
The other two are “Citizen Kane”, which is on my list and “The Godfather” which comes in at about 9 or 10 on my Top 100. “Vertigo” is their #61, and neither “The Conversation” or “Barton Fink” made the AFI list at all. 

Can I deal with this for a second? “Vertigo” is 61st? RUFKM? It’s behind “Dr. Zhivago” and “High Noon”? Sight and Sound has it at number one in THE WORLD! Have they even seen this film? Have you? If the answer is no, then stop reading this blog and go rent it RIGHT NOW. 

Anyway, I can understand “Barton Fink” not making the list. There are elements in all of the Coen Brothers’ films that are not universally beloved, but boy oh boy do they speak to me! In fact, some of their lesser films are the ones I love best, in particular this one, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “A Serious Man”. I think if you are a baby boomer (I am), Jewish (I am) and/or in the Arts/Entertainment field (I am) then these films really connect. 

However, “The Conversation” having no place in the AFI Top 100 is a complete oversight. Coppola himself says it is his favorite, even more than either  Godfathers or “Apocalypse Now”. 

So why am I yammering on about “The Conversation”, you might ask (and aren’t you the inquisitive one today)? Because “Enemy of the State” is as close to a sequel as we are ever going to get. True, it is not directed or even produced by Francis Ford Coppola, but it does have Gene Hackman in basically the same role he played in “The Conversation”. Yes they changed his name, but there is no question we are dealing with the same subject matter, and an extrapolation of what might have happened to his character, Harry Call. Would it have been better if Coppola had helmed “Enemy of the State”? Maybe not; his efforts as a director since 1980 had fallen woefully short of his first decade, and maybe his spark was gone. Tony Scott would not have been my first or even 50th choice; in fact he made some of my least favorite movies, including “The Fan” and “Beverly Hills Cop II”. But he also directed this film and “True Romance” which I think is just about perfect. 

My memory is that “Enemy of the State” was great: action packed with some amazing chase scenes, and it tackled a very important subject— the limits of Government surveillance. The film gained stature in my memory after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent passing of the Patriot Act. They tackled this issue before it was really huge. I like that! Let’s see if 13 years after 9/11 it has the same resonance.

After re-watching:

 I'm not gonna sit in congress and pass a law that lets the government point a camera and a microphone at anything they damn well please. -Congressman Hammersley

An NSA bigwig (Jon Voight) needs the votes of a Congressman (Jason Robards) and his cronies to pass a bill that extends the rights of the Agency to use satellites for surveillance of average Americans. The Congressman refuses, remaining steadfast in his concern for the rights of individuals. The bigwig has his honchos kill the Congressman, and then make it look like a car accident caused by drug abuse. Ironically, an environmental group has a camera installed at the scene which captures the entire proceedings. When the environmental watchdog views the tape, he realizes that he has this evidence, but the NSA does too, and chases him. In the course of this chase, he drops a memory card with the video in the shopping bag of an unwitting lawyer (Will Smith), who then becomes pursued and persecuted himself by the NSA gang. His only help in this adventure is an off-the-grid ex-surveillance expert named either Brill or Edward Lyle (Gene Hackman) who is ambivalent about being drawn into this situation.


Was this ahead of its time? I’ll say! And even though it’s now 16 years old, much of the technology is pretty cool: the 3D simulators, the satellite imaging, the various types of bugging devices et al. It really doesn’t seem dated except for the computer screens and lack of smartphones. 

Sadly, there are a bunch of elements that qualify for exclusion from number 10 on my must list above. That was the one that says you can’t have things in the film that are so inaccurate that they pull you out of it, saying to yourself “Wha? That shit ain’t right!” 

Here’s what ain’t right: Little Italy in Baltimore of 1998 is definitely NOT Little Italy in New York of 1955. The differences? Italian Social Clubs, which were the center of Mafia life in New York, were prevalent in New York’s Little Italy of the ’40’s through ’70’s. Little Italy of Baltimore in 1998 had virtually nothing to do with the mob. It’s just a bunch of crappy Italian Restaurants with bad food and no parking. Nowadays there’s a garage or two, but the food still stinks. And there’s NO MOB at all. You know how I know this? If the mob was there, the food would be AWESOME. In fact, I doubt very much if Italians have anything at all to do with Baltimore’s Little Italy. I’m going on record as saying that they are Greeks. I love Greek food, but they have no idea how to make Italian food.

 Robert Clayton Dean, the lawyer played by Will Smith, gets drawn into this situation not unlike the way Roger Thornhill from “North by Northwest” gets drawn into his…merely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here’s the thing; the NSA guys know he’s not involved in this conflict, that he’s merely a guy who got the video by happenstance, and yet they still find it necessary to trash his house, reputation, marriage and most importantly, credit rating. Instead of just bull-rushing him, why couldn’t they just say, “Hey man….that crazy dude we were chasing? He dropped something in your bag, and we need that shit. It’s for national security and whatnot”. I mean if it were me, I’d say, "yeah cool, what was it you were looking for?” End of problem. Basically, the whole film turns on a plot device that is more than a bit ridiculous. At least in “North By Northwest”, you can totally believe that James Mason and crew think Thornhill is lying, George Kaplan doesn’t really exist, but they don’t know that. 

One other little item that breaks my 10th Commandment, aka -Thou shalt not cause the audience to say out loud the words “No fucking way!”. 

The store in Dupont Circle where Dean is shopping when the Greenpeace guy drops the video in his bag is a Lingerie store; a store wherein all the shopping clerks are drop dead models wearing only the lingerie they sell. WHAT? In DC? First of all, the closest thing we have here to a “Lingerie Store” is Victoria’s Secret at the Pentagon Mall. The clerks there all look like Betty White. I say, “No fucking way!”.

But let’s get back to the theme, and what really is smart about “Enemy of the State”. The discussion that lingers about the NSA, The Patriot Act, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and our own personal safety at home is maybe one of the most important of the 21st Century. This is not the forum for me to expound on my feelings on this subject, but suffice to say that if you need to kill a Congressman to protect our people from terrorists, then there is a real priority issue here. How about we limit the availability of automatic weapons to Schizophrenics first? Make someone pass a Rorschach before they can buy a Kalishnikov. 

In this film, there is a line spoken by Hackman that goes “Fort Meade has 18 acres of mainframe computers underground. You’re talking to your wife on the phone and you use the word “bomb”, “president” , “Allah”, any of a hundred keywords, the computer recognizes it, automatically records it, red-flags it for analysis”. 1998, people! Three years before 9/11! That part of the film is very compelling, and it definitely adheres to Wayne’s 3rd commandment, “Thou shalt be about something fascinating”. 


You want action? You want pacing? You want chase scenes? Man, oh man this film has it all. It is relentless from the opening credits, and there is so much information, that you feel like you need to be a mainframe to process it. This is a good thing. 

I really enjoyed the chase scene when the Environmental guy (Jason Lee) is trying to escape from the NSA thugs. The cutting is fast, but not so breakneck that you can’t follow what’s happening. Plus the voice over sound mixing of the techie NSA guys tracking him, and the cutaways to the satellites and choppers are just right. They seem to be tapped into every surveillance camera in the area, and when Lee is not visible by satellite he is traceable in other ways. There’s no way he can disappear. The climax of that scene is devastating, and really well done. 

The other great chase scene comes when Dean is running through a tunnel (that I guess is supposed to be the Fort McHenry tunnel) and they keep finding him no matter how evasive his actions. 

The film's climax is straight out of the end of "True Romance". Two groups that had no idea they were at odds are pointing guns at each other, while our hero finds himself smack dab in the middle unarmed. And, as is the case with "True Romance" you pretty much hope that everyone EXCEPT our hero ends up dead. The tension in "Enemy" doesn't really get a chance to build as beautifully as it does in "True Romance". The Tarantino script just seems to have a better hold on this aspect of a thriller.


Will Smith would certainly not be my first choice for a role of this kind. That being said, he does a fine job as the Hitchcock "Wrong Man" type, and adds just enough cleverness to offset the cluelessness. Would the film have been better with a more sharp-tongued edge at the center? Maybe, but I think that he pulls off playing a person to whom Lyle says a number of times “You are either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid”.

And how, you might ask (another question), was Hackman in his extrapolation of Harry Call 25 years later? Hackman always delivers that Hackman touch. He can be rude, abrasive, charming, funny, fierce and icy cold all within seconds of the other. Somehow, he makes it work.  

The rest of the cast is really deep, and really good. Listen to this list;
Besides the people I already mentioned (Smith, Hackman, Voight, Lee, Robards) how about Jack Black, Seth Green, Lisa Bonet, Barry Pepper, Gabriel Byrne, Anna Gunn, Phillip Baker Hall, Tom Sizemore, Regina King and Larry King (no relation…that’s a joke, people). 

So what? No room for Kevin Bacon in this flick?


How did “Enemy of the State” do in regards Wayne’s 11 Commandments? Pretty good on all counts except for 5, 7 and particularly 10. It definitely did not hit any emotional chord for me, nor did I find it transformative—I did not feel changed after watching this film. But many of my favorites also fall short in those categories. 
What’s good about this film is really good; the interesting subject matter, the pacing and action, the stylistic elements. What really is a problem for me are all the "no fucking way" moments, and at the heart of them, the actual motor that drives the story. The murder, cover-up, and persecution of an innocent just go too far for even my fevered imagination. 

And the most unbelievable thing of all? That there is a Congressman out there whose vote you can’t buy!

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Dead of Night" (1945) Dir- Various

A Special Halloween On Second Look

What I remember:

This will be my “Treehouse of Horror” entry. That much loved series of episodes of "The Simpsons” is usually told in 3 or so slightly related tales, all spooky. “Dead of Night” was possibly the first movie to attempt this feat. I can recall about 4 of the episodes, but I am sure there are a bunch more. 

Two of them are definitely recreated in “The Twilight Zone” series. The famous Ventriloquist's dummy episode from the Zone that starred Cliff Robertson was positively based on the episode in “Dead of Night” starring Michael Redgrave. The other famous Zone episode that debuted herein was “Twenty Two”, also known by it’s most famous line: “Room for one more, honey.” 

Holy crap, that show creeped me out beyond words the first time I saw it. Sure there are some great Zone episodes, some total classics, some really hilarious episodes, some really poignant ones. But by far the creepiest stay with you. For me it’s; “Twenty-Two”, Shatner with the Airplane Gremlin, and “The Howling Man”, which was based on a Roald Dahl story. I’m not saying they were my favorites, but they definitely terrified me. Funny, if you look at that Gremlin now, it looks like it’s wearing a clown outfit that went absurdly wrong. All I know is it gave me nightmares as a pre-teen.

When I found out that “Dead of Night” was responsible for “Twenty-Two” and maybe a few other Twilight Zone stories, I knew I had to see it. 

So it’s British, right? That means the horror will be understated, subtle, intelligent and well acted. I can go for that. What I remember was that this truly was the case, and that the way they tied the different stories together was really interesting and fun. It was a bit uneven, for sure…not a classic of the genre, but really original in concept and execution. 

Oohhh…execution. A creepy word. 

I know I watched this with my wife back in the ’80’s. She, too, is a big fan of the Zone, and also of “Twenty-Two”. I believe that “A Stop at Willoughby” is her favorite. Remember that one? With the harried commuter who keeps seeing this beautiful small town on his daily train, even though there’s no actual stop for it? If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. Yet. 


After re-watching:

“Well, when it comes to foreseeing the future, something once happened to me that knocks your theories into a cocked hat. Something I’ll not forget to my dying day. As a matter of fact, it very nearly was my dying day!”-- Hugh Grainger

Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is an architect who has been called to spend the weekend at a country farmhouse in order to consult with its owners, The Foleys, on rebuilding their  house. Upon his arrival, he gets struck with the sensation of deja vu, and becomes aware that he has met all the people in the house in a dream. This recurring dream, he soon realizes turns into a nightmare eventually. One of the guests, a Dr. Von Straaten (Frederick Valk) is skeptical, and has a scientific explanation for Craig’s feelings. As the day progresses, events that Craig has predicted from his dream start becoming reality. At the same time, it turns out that each of the other guests has had some experience with the paranormal, and they relate these tales in episodic fashion.


Strange that Ealing Studios would be the source of a film that you would more likely associate with Hammer. Ealing was well known and loved for it’s comedies like “The Lavender Hill Mob”. Yet the chilling premise of this film is handled very expertly, as if the Studio had been churning these out for years. 

Anthologies are not my favorite form of storytelling. I always feel like I am getting cheated out of depth of character and plot. At 103 minutes, “Dead of Night” doesn’t give you a lot of that. 
There are basically 5 tales. Besides the over-running plot line of deja vu, each of the other tales is told by a guest at the house. 

The first is told by ex race car driver Anthony Baird (Hugh Grainger). This is our original version of “Twenty Two”. In this case, it’s a wide awake dream from his hospital room while recovering from a racing accident. Though it’s bedtime, and his radio is playing, it suddenly grows very quiet. The radio fades out, the clock stops ticking, and outside birds tweet. He goes to the window, and parts the drapes to see that it is daytime, and there is a horse-drawn hearse below. The driver smiles and says, “Just room for one inside, sir.”  I guess you can figure how the rest of it goes….instead of a plane, it’s a bus that goes over the bridge, with our friend the hearse driver as the ticket taker. It’s a great story, but if you are familiar with the Twilight Zone version, you pretty much know what’s coming. 

Young Sally (a 15 year old Sally Ann Howes) follows with a classic ghost story. She is playing a version of “Hide and Seek” at a Christmas party in an old house that she has been told by another child is haunted. Of course she stumbles upon a room and a crying child. Since all the children are in costumes, it isn’t remarkable to Sally that the child is in period dress from the 1860’s. He tells her he is scared of his half-sister, Constance. Later Sally finds out that there was a child murdered in that very house, a Frances Kent murdered by his sister Constance. In 1860. What’s actually strange here, is that this is a real case from UK history, and the names were not changed. So much for the disclaimer about "any resemblance blah blah blah.” This would be like you meeting a kid called Bobby Franks in a house in Chicago, and him telling you that he’s scared of these two High School students he knows, named Leopold and Loeb.
This story is probably the weakest of the 5, and maybe the most transparent. There is certainly no surprise for the audience in finding out that Frances was a ghost. 

The 3rd story I did not recall, and it’s really well done. Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) tells of when she bought an antique mirror for her fiancĂ©, Peter (Ralph Michael, looking a bit like Clifton Webb). When Peter looks in the mirror, he sees a different room completely than his own. He begins acting strangely, and eventually he becomes jealous and angry. Suffice to say that something awful happened in that room, and he begins to take on the personality of the inhabitant.This episode is well shot and acted, and I found it quite suspenseful. 

The 4th is a bit of comic relief from a very popular comedy team of the era, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. These were the two guys who were obsessed with the Cricket scores in “The Lady Vanishes”, even at the risk of their own safety. They were also in “Night Train to Munich” in similar fashion. In “Dead of Night” they are obsessed golfers, in love with the same woman, who decide to play a game wherein the winner gets the woman’s hand in marriage, and the loser disappears. Radford wins by cheating, and upon losing, Wayne actually walks into the water hazard and drowns. He begins to haunt Radford when the afterlife informs him that Radford cheated. There are a couple of laugh out loud moments in the “Topper” tradition, but certainly nothing new here. I do love the British tradition of watching a guy do something very silly he thinks nobody can see, and then having another character walk in on this. 

Our 5th story is clearly the strongest and most chilling, if maybe the least original. It’s told by the skeptical Dr. Von Straaten. Yes, it’s the ventriloquist dummy with a mind of it’s own. Wasn’t there also a movie with Anthony Hopkins called “Magic” that used this gimmick? And I know there was a silent film by Erch Von Stroheim called “The Great Gabbo” that preceded this. Hmm…Von Straaten. Von Stroheim. An homage, perhaps? I wonder if the director of “Greed” ever tried to get some money from Ealing for their appropriation of his work.

 Anyway, this little story was beautifully realized and perfectly acted by Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, who’s dummy Hugo is an evil little bastard, ready to dump him at the first sign of another ventriloquist. Hugo has got this high-pitched whiny voice, thus making him even more evil than he looks. Which makes me wonder….why is it that dummies are so evil looking? Aren’t they supposed to be funny? I mean, even Knucklehead Smith gave me the willies. And Charlie McCarthy? An Irishman with a monocle and top hat? TERRRRRifying. Forget clowns, people. Dummies. (Shudder).


Some neat tricks are used by our team of directors. Ealing flagship director Robert Hamer, helmed “The Haunted Mirror” episode, and did some nice work with the reflections and camera movement. The trickery reminded me of Magritte, more than a little. 

Brazilan born Alberto Cavalcanti, who directed “The Christmas Party" and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” later on teamed up with Sally Ann Howes again in an adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby”. Obviously his work in the Dummy story was the highlight of this film. The camera angles and lighting are particularly effective. And he got just the right amount of movement from the dummy…just enough to make him seem like he had his own mind. He does some nice work in the ghost story too; particularly the contrast between the action and mayhem of the kids playing games and the silence and seclusion of the little murdered boy’s room.

Charles Crichton, another Ealing man, directed the Golf story, and his humorous bent and timing make it work. The man who helmed “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “A Fish Called Wanda” 37 years apart had quite a career, it turns out. Lots of TV, but also a co-directing spot for “The Birdman of Alcatraz”. 

The “Hearse Driver” and the Architect’s dream were directed by Basil Dearden. He does a great job at creating the eerie atmosphere, and also the really dry and subtle end of the film. I enjoyed the transition in the hospital room from noisy nighttime to silent day. Sound and picture together work to form a very seamless transformation. Ironically, Dearden himself died in an auto accident. I guess he wasn’t given the same warning as Baird. Or maybe he was, and was skeptical like Von Straaten.


Most of the heavy lifting is done by Redgrave, with a bit of help by Googie Withers and Ralph Michael. The rest of the acting is pretty standard, and young Sally Ann Howes is maybe even a bit over her head, particularly when she realizes that she just hung out with a ghost, and repeats “I’m not frightened... I’m not frightened”, before collapsing into the arms of an older woman.
Radford and Wayne are exactly who they are, and their humor, while maybe a little antiquated, still gets the job done. 

Back to Redgrave, though. I didn’t remember him being this effective, but he is simply marvelous. When he is drunk at the bar, he resembles Hugo’s limp body almost more than the dummy. At the end of the episode, when the dummy has taken over his mind, his expressions are positively chilling. And the fact that the dummy’s voice comes out of this rictus of a mouth that doesn’t move, is truly horrifying. I think there is a bit of influence on the final scene of "Psycho" here. I'm sure Hitch had seen this film, and that last shot of Norman with his Mom's voice ("I wouldn't hurt a fly") is quite similar to Hugo's voice coming out of Frere's unmoving mouth. 
Even though it’s only about 20 minutes long, this version of the dummy from hell is the best I’ve seen, and it’s mostly thanks to Redgrave. 


Despite the familiarity with it’s story lines and tropes, “Dead of Night” has a unique feel to it. The circular overriding narrative was apparently the inspiration for the guys who invented the Steady State model of the universe in 1948! The way the stories spring from this and the strength of the two scariest episodes make this a great and enjoyable watch. 

It's the funeral home's name! Willoughby! He's dead, you see? Oh, you knew, already? Spoiler spoiled!

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭1/2