Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Serial Pulp: THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938), Chapter Five: Shoot to Kill

Nearly all our heroes were in peril at the end of the previous chapter. The Spider himself was trapped in a room with a gas bomb and killing steam, while Nita, Jackson and Ram Singh were shackled inside the archetypal flooding room. The first cliffhanger is hurdled easily as The Spider simply forces his way out a window. Meanwhile, The Octopus taunts the others via intercom, while Ram Singh vows to carve his name in the villain's heart. The Spider goes back into the trap house and takes out the goons operating the radio and speakers. He somehow figures out that his friends are in danger and pries open the airtight door to the flood room, clobbering two foes with the rush of water while he discreetly hops on top of a chair. After he frees his friends, Ram Singh notices that the two gangsters are coming to. Something violent is cut from the picture here, at least in the version I saw, for we now see The Spider and Ram Singh approaching the camera, and then we see the gangsters' bodies twitch and go limp.

The Octopus is royally pissed at his men's latest failure to kill Richard Wentworth and his friends. ??, as the actor playing The Octopus is known for now, knows how to work his full-face mask to make it express his rage. He puts his long-term plans to dominate American utilities on hold for the moment to make destroying The Spider priority number one.

Learning through his underworld sources (i.e. Blinky McQuade's) that everyone's out to get The Spider, Wentworth switches up. His plan is to make a public spectacle of himself at a charity magic show in order to draw out The Octopus's men, if not The Octopus himself. He seems awfully confident that the bad guys will attempt some surgical strike on himself instead of bombing the bus station (i.e. the set from the chapter-one cliffhanger) where the charity show will take place. The Octopus takes the bait but complicates things a little by issuing a threat to Wentworth in The Spider's name.

The Octopus's idea is that the bogus threat will draw the actual Spider to the scene, where he can then eliminate both his enemies at once. He still doesn't realize how easy that would be, but I'm not sure of the soundness of his plan.  Why wouldn't The Spider, presuming he was someone other than Wentworth -- as The Octopus must presume so far -- simply stay away on the assumption that the charity show will now be heavily guarded? For the plan to work, this theoretical Spider must assume that someone, presumably an enemy of his, actually will go after Wentworth. Of course, this criticism is moot because The Spider can't help but be there is Wentworth is. The funny part is that no one -- the press, the police and, of course, Wentworth, takes the fake threat seriously. Sending threats to the newspapers isn't The Spider's M.O., and as Wentworth asks, what would The Spider have against him. Wentworth's a crime fighter in his own right, after all, while The Spider, in Wentworth's words, is "a perfectly nice sort of fellow ... who goes around punishing people the law doesn't have time to catch up with." Wentworth's chat with Commissioner Kirk allows the latter to air anew his suspicions about Wentworth being The Spider, since Ram Singh had left his turban, lost when the bad guys clobbered him in the previous chapter, in the trap house which the cops found littered with corpses marked with The Spider's brand. Ram Singh, after all, is the only man in the entire city who wears a turban, isn't he?

 Does this make Nita Van Sloan a costumed crimefighter in her own right?

In any event, it's on with the show despite the dubious threat. Wentworth arranges to have the more suspicious spectators herded to one section of the makeshift theater, but The Octopus's chief goon (Marc Lawrence) recognizes the set-up and orders a cohort to head over to where a spotlight has been set up. The gangster sneaks up there and kayoes the lighting man, all unbeknownst to the security detail. They're the same people who let Lawrence into the bus station with a loaded gun, despite the publicized (albeit mocked) threat to Wentworth's life. Nita takes the stage in costume to introduce Wentworth, who immediately draws fire from Lawrence. Wentworth seems unhurt, almost as if the bullets hit a force-field. Why didn't they just blow the place up? That's what a real Norvell Page villain would do. Now The Spider appears, faster than the quickest change would make possible, to open fire on the gangsters. But now the wisdom of Lawrence's tactics becomes apparent, because The Spider has maneuvered himself into the perfect position for that goon up above to drop that spotlight on him. Thus ends a relatively uneventful chapter dominated by The Spider and Octopus trying to outwit each other. You still get the sense that The Octopus is somewhat more dangerous than the typical serial villain, but he clearly wasn't at his best this time. Let's wish him better luck next time, since The Spider's Web isn't even halfway done yet.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: UNTAMED (1929)

Joan Crawford's first talking feature, directed by Jack Conway, doesn't live up to its title, and it definitely doesn't live up to its cable-guide synopsis, which led me to expect Crawford as something closer to a female Tarzan. She's no jungle girl, alas, but from the perspective of Hollywood South America may as well have been Darkest Africa, and that's where we find "Bingo," the daughter of a down-on-his-luck oil prospector raised among the common people, whom she entertains with the untamed sounds of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown's The Chant of the Jungle. Jungle music it isn't, just as The Pagan Love Song wasn't very pagan. I suppose Bingo (nee Alice) is untamed insofar as she's been raised on the streets and has a certain rough manner. When some slob tries to grope her during a dance she yells out, "Somebody give me a knife!" The same slob later kills her dad, just as his old pal Murchison (Ernest Torrence) was going to tell him that one of his mines has finally paid off, making him (but now Bingo) a millionaire.

You can see where this is going, and the idea of the looming, lunkish Torrence, who made his name as a psycho hillbilly in Tol'able David and was rendered still more exotic by sound's exposure of his Scots burr -- acting as Bingo's Henry Higgins to make her fit for society has some potential. Unfortunately, Untamed doesn't go there. Instead, her social education is presented as a fait accompli so the picture can take up a new subject. On the boat back to America Bingo had met cute with Andy McAllister (Robert Montgomery), who unfortunately already has a date for the voyage. That doesn't stop Bingo, who after bopping her rival on the nose on the ship hooks up with Andy again in New York, where practically the last untamed thing Bingo does is goad Andy and a rival suitor into a boxing match in the middle of a swanky party at her mansion. From this point, Untamed really becomes Andy's story, driven by a male-pride melodrama. The young man has been bred for society but has no immediate prospects. This means that, should he marry Bingo, he won't be able to give her the lifestyle to which she has but recently become accustomed. For Bingo this isn't a problem, as she doesn't see why they couldn't live off her money, as managed by Murchison. This is where male pride comes in; it would be shameful for Andy to live off his wife, especially when Murchison suspects him of being a gigolo -- even though the straitlaced old man can't bring himself to utter the word. Recognizing that psychology at work in Andy, Murchison tries to manipulate him out of Bingo's life by appearing to consent to a wedding while offering Andy a "wedding gift" of $30,000. He sweet-talks Andy, assuring him that it won't be like living off Bingo's money because this will be his by virtue of the gift, but he depends on Andy pridefully rejecting the offer and walking out on Bingo once and for all. What he doesn't depend on is Andy grabbing the check with a threat to flaunt it (and a former girlfriend) at the party where Bingo plans to announce their engagement and call it a bribe to make him quit her. What Andy doesn't expect is that Bingo will respond to this scene by shooting him. Fortunately the bullet only grazes his collarbone; it's the kind of wound that makes shooter and victim realize how much they still love each other. But if that wasn't a fatal blow to the audience, now Murchison decides that if Andy wants to work and earn the means to support Bingo, there's a mine-engineering job available, for which Andy just happens to have the college qualifications. That's one head-slapping way to close a movie, since you can only ask why Murchison didn't offer Andy that job in the first place.

There's no guaranteeing that Untamed would have been any good if it had continued along the lines of its first half-hour, but the way it did continue guaranteed that critics would declare it brain-dead. A Pittsburgh reviewer called it "the most amazing burlesque ever to come from the sometimes deluded wanderings of a scenario writer," and I don't think I can top that.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I KNEW HER WELL (Io la conoscevo bene, 1965)

Fifty years after starring in Antonio Pietrangeli's film, Stefania Sandrelli offered what may be the best critique of it. Her character, the aspiring actress Adriana, jumps to her death from her upper-floor apartment at the end of the picture, no longer being able to cope with the humiliations of her existence. If it seems like an overdetermined moment to you, Sandrelli seems to agree. She doesn't think Adriana had to die, or necessarily would have killed herself, but "she had to die for the film to end." But if Io la conoscevo bene closes on a false note, there aren't many others in Pietrangeli's scathing satire. In many ways -- its episodic structure, its social surrealism -- it seems like a critique of Federico Fellini, its point being that la vita isn't so dolce for those less privileged than Marcello Mastroianni's characters. To the extent that Adriana's career is apparently ruined on a whim by a spiteful filmmaker, it takes a shot at the possibly misogynist vanities of 8 1/2 as well.

Adriana is a striver, first seen as a clumsy stylist -- literally first seen sunning herself on a garbage-strewn beach, actually -- who longs to be on screen. She has an agent who lands her dubious assignments that at least pay some bills, from shoe model for a TV commercial to traveling funiture ad on the roof of a car to fashion model during the intermission of a boxing card staged at an opera house, with some vast classical tapestry as a backdrop. For her these are important stepping stones, but others find her ambitions absurd. Why did she dress up so elaborately for the shoe commercial, for instance, when she'll only be seen from the ankles down?

Our heroine is just another rat in a hopeless race, it seems, and both she and the film itself are sympathetic to people in a similar plight like the good-natured boxer Lunk (a clean-shaven Mario Adorf), who gets battered on a regular basis because it's the only way he can earn money. His path and Adriana's cross all too briefly, but despite her apparent affinity for simpler, sweeter people like the local auto mechanic (Franco Nero), her ambition draws her into the orbit of less lovable losers. Gigi Baggini (Ugo Tognazzi) is a has-been and hanger-on with a big star who makes him perform a grueling tap dance at a party Adriana attends. Later, the star uses Gigi as a go-between with Adriana. When Adriana tells Gigi to have his master ask her out himself, in his own desperation not to take the blame, Gigi reports that Adriana simply rejected the idea of a date. That doesn't help Gigi, who's last seen desperately clinging to the great man's car, begging for a break, but his lie leads to Adriana's ruin. She was at the party in part to film an interview with the star that will be included in a newsreel to promote her career. Out of spite, the star edits the interview into an atrocity out of Merton of the Movies, portraying Adriana as an idiot and a slut with the bad taste to wear a plaster on the heel of her foot. Adriana doesn't see it coming, having gathered with her fellow usherettes at the local movie house to watch her big moment, only to be laughed out of the building. From there, for all intents and purposes, her fate is sealed.

I still can't help feeling that the film has her give up too easily -- she seems capable of greater perseverance --  but I suppose satire has its prerogatives, and the film has been fine enough up to this point for me to hold the ending against it too much. It isn't called I Know Her Well, after all, so we should have seen this coming. Whether it's past or present tense, the moral seems to be that no one knew her well, or ever will, though some may think they did. Whether Adriana really knew herself, or was simply playing a role at the fatal moment, is a question the film invites you to answer for yourselves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Serial Pulp: THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938), Chapter Four: Surrender or Die!

At the end of Chapter Three of this Columbia Pictures adaptation of Norvell Page's pulp hero, Richard Wentworth was knocked into a mean looking power-plant thingy that turned explosive on impact. At the opening of this chapter, after the narrator's usual long-winded recap -- he has to talk over all the footage from last week's climax -- Wentworth, aka The Spider, simply gets better and gets out of Dodge when the cops show to disrupt The Octopus's plan to black out the city. By now, Wentworth has figured out that The Octopus is no common gangster, but represents "organized crime with more than money as a goal. He wants control." He specifically wants control of utilities, having first muscled into transportation and more recently targeted electrical power. That The Octopus is engaged in "terrorism" rather than mere crime is in keeping with the apocalyptic tone of the Popular Publications pulps, though whether the villain can keep escalating his attacks like his print counterparts remains to be seen.

Out of nowhere Wentworth gets a potentially important lead from a young friend of his, the gas station operator and ham radio enthusiast Charlie Dennis. In The Spider's day a ham radio operator was as close as you could get to a computer hacker today, and Charlie has inadvertently hacked into the Herzen Band, a frequency outside the range of most radios on which the gas jockey is picking up inscrutable, apparently coded transmissions. Wentworth transcribes a typical broadcast and has his old war buddy Jackson set about deciphering the code. Charlie has instantly become an important asset for the good guys, but The Octopus's men have detected the hack somehow, and their master orders Charlie eliminated. So we have this episode's plot wrapped up: The Spider will have to save Charlie from the bad guys....except that he doesn't. In fact, Wentworth and his pals are completely clueless about Charlie's imminent doom and make no effort to protect what could have been a crucial source of intelligence on The Octopus's activities. In a flawless victory for the villain, Charlie is murdered and his gas station (and all-important radio) blown up with Wentworth none the wiser.

The main characters never even acknowledge that anything has happened to poor Charlie, though I have to imagine that the Herzen Band will become important again later. To be fair, our heroes have their own security to think about, since The Octopus's goons are still stalking Wentworth. Two of them jump Richard outside his hotel suite. He fights them off but finds that Nita and Jackson, whom he'd left in the suite, have been snatched, the snatchers leaving behind a note telling Richard to expect a message from The Octopus.

The mystery villain has several balls in the air. While trying to outmaneuver Wentworth, he's also plotting to take out all the city's radio stations so he can monopolize the airwaves when making his demands. The broadcast gives Wentworth and Ram Singh a chance to use their triangulation machines to pinpoint the source of the transmission, which they expect to be The Octopus's lair and their friends' prison. Finding the likely spot, they break through an electrified fence and prepare for a two-pronged attack on the building. Despite being warned to be careful, the mighty Ram Singh promptly gets KOd while skulking in the bushes and joins Nita and Jackson in chains in a cell.

This place proves to be some kind of torture house. The cell is rigged to fill with water in order to drown its prisoners.While they thrash about in vain and the water rises, The Spider enters another end of the house and surprises a bunch of gangsters. For some reason he surrenders his advantage of surprise to hunker behind a toppled table, content to trade shots with the surviving goons until one quick-thinking, courageous bad guy closes a door to trap The Spider in a room with a gas bomb. As if that wasn't bad enough, this room is rigged to release a lethal volume of steam. A double cliffhanger closes an episode that has not gone well for the good guys. It's good at holding our interest, however, since it shows The Octopus and his men as more effective serial villains than we typically see. We'll see how long that lasts....

Sunday, July 17, 2016

DVR Diary: BENGAZI (1955)

They didn't add the h (for Hillary?) until later, but this is the Libyan city of 21st century infamy, back in the early days after World War II when the former Italian colony was under Anglo-French occupation. But John Brahm's adventure film from the last days of RKO could have been set in any colonial place for all the attention it pays to natives. It's a slightly noirish treasure hunt as some disreputable veterans and a seedy saloon owner head into the desert, where a ruined mosque hides the gold one of the gang stole from local tribesmen. Our hero, if only by default, is John Gilmore, a refugee from small town America, where it's a big event when the local movie theater changes its program once a week. His ball and chain is the bar owner, Donovan (an elderly Victor McLageln), who seems incapable of backing up whatever bluster he can still manage. He wants in on the treasure so he can take care of his daughter back on the Emerald Isle, but unbeknownst to him she (Mala Powers) has come to Bengazi looking for him. They haven't seen each other for so long that they blow right past each other in their first encounter, and it's not until Gilmore finds out her name that he arranges a proper reintroduction. Once the three-man gang goes into the desert, the daughter joins a Scots officer (Richard Carlson with a wobbly accent) in pursuit by plane. In the mosque, the third partner is almost immediately killed by virtually invisible tribesmen, while Gilmore and Donovan hunker down for a siege. Reinforcements are actually the last thing they need, especially since Donovan's daughter and the officer promptly get their plane blown up after they've landed. The intruders are picked off one by one -- there are expendable people I haven't mentioned, and McLageln is mercifully eliminated relatively early -- until Gilmore learns some moral lesson and decides to sacrifice the treasure, if not himself, in order to save the final girl and the wounded officer. Apart from some creative use of the ruined mosque set and the plane landing in the desert Brahm doesn't take much advantage of the Superscope wide screen and Bengazi overall seems much like the sort of programmer that might have been made ten or fifteen years earlier. Conte's a good actor who always managed to retain some dignity throughout his career, but McLageln is embarrassing if not pitiful, clearly having nothing left at this late point in his career. The picture's too-good-to-be-true ending is a final insult to the viewer, but I suppose we could wish everyone's problems in Libya could be solved so easily.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Serial Pulp: THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938), Chapter Three: High Voltage

The resolution of last episode's cliffhanger was set up when we saw Richard Wentworth's henchman Ram Singh monitoring the situation in the Adams office as Wentworth, The Spider, prepared to rescue his girlfriend Nita Van Sloan. Once the faithful Sikh saw that The Octopus's men had set a deathtrap for The Spider, he rushed to the building. After the recap, this episode opens with Ram arriving just in time to help fellow flunky Jackson get the mechanical hoist back in control so Nita and The Spider have an easy last leg of their trip to the ground. After seeing Nita off, The Spider re-enters the building to fetch Adams from a vault in order to interrogate him about The Octopus. As he drives away, more minions take up the pursuit. The Spider exhorts Adams to jump from the car before it goes over a cliff, but Adams is no Spider and burns with the vehicle.

Some of Richard Wentworth's victims bear "the mark of The Spider."

Inevitably, The Spider is blamed for the neophyte traction magnate's murder, provoking a hissy fit from Wentworth."All because a few thugs are killed, the cry goes up: Get the Spider!" he complains, "Every time The Spider strikes, all they see is the act. Never a thought for the real reason behind it." Wentworth is more thin-skinned a crimefighter than The Green Hornet, for instance, who wants to be thought of as a criminal, since that makes it easier for him to move through the underworld. But pity party over, it's back to work. "I've got to find the Octopus, and destroy him," our hero resolves.

Civilian life is no shelter for Richard Wentworth as it is for other costumed crimefighters. Since Wentworth himself is known as a criminologist who gets involved in prominent cases, he is just as much a target out of costume as The Spider is. The Octopus has known since the last chapter that Wentworth is an enemy, so he has the Wentworth house staked out, with gunsels waiting to blast Wentworth the moment he steps outside. Fortunately for our team, The Octopus's minions are idiots. Richard dodges them by ordering a bouquet of "special flowers" for Nita from a friendly, confidential florist. The delivery made, Wentworth swaps clothes with the delivery man and marches out to the delivery truck, a leftover bouquet obscuring his face as the bored gunsels watch. "This is a useless job," one reflects, but if this serial teaches us anything it's that there are no useless jobs, only useless people.

Wentworth puts on his Blinky McQuade disguise to seek out a gangster he'd recognized among the men in Adams' office. Blinky, the one-eyed safecracker, will be hard up and looking for any kind of job Frank Martin can give him. McQuade is perhaps the most likable gangster you'll ever meet, and Martin gladly lets him in on a warehouse job his gang is pulling on their own. If that goes well, Martin may use him on an Octopus job. Martin says Blinky can be trusted not to blab about things, but you'd think he'd wonder after the cops show up in the middle of the warehouse job. To be fair, it isn't clear if Wentworth called in a tip once Blinky found out where the job was, and in any event a wounded Martin is too grateful to think too much about things after Blinky rescues him from arrest by sticking up a cop with his finger.

Once Martin tells him what the Octopus has lined up -- a raid on a power plant in an effort to black out the city -- Blinky arranges to have Jackson show up at his hideout in a cop costume  to take him in for questioning. "The Octopus ordered this job done so there wouldn't be a light left on in the city," a gangster helpfully explains to the audience and the men gathered not at all conspicuously or suspiciously outside the Power & Light company. The Spider shows up, guns blazing, to break up the sabotage, but has the bad luck to get socked into a great big spark-emitting machine to end the episode. Of course, Columbia spoils the cliffhanger by telling us immediately what Wentworth will be up to next time, but I suppose if you knew going in that there would be fifteen chapters you could guess that the hero wouldn't get whacked in Episode Three. It makes you wonder why serial studios bothered with cliffhangers. If you think about it, take away the cliffhangers and instead of Saturday afternoon serials you have the modern short-form TV season -- except now you can watch any episode of some shows and really believe a hero might die.

To be continued...

Monday, July 11, 2016


Death by hanging in Japan means death by strangulation, or else Nagisa Oshima's admittedly magical-realist satire wouldn't even get started. Death By Hanging would be a very different movie if everyone in the audience assumed that the condemned man's neck should have been broken. Instead, the trouble starts when the man's heart keeps beating beyond all expectation. The officials aren't sure if "R" (Do-yun Yu) should be hung a second time, given their assumption that they're actually dealing with some sort of revenant. R, a rapist and murderer, recognizes some of the officials when he wakes up but claims to have no recollection of his crimes. His Christian chaplain speculates that R's soul has left his body, which means this soul-less but sentient husk should not be hanged again. The other officials, all involved with law enforcement, agree that R has to regain his memories and recognize his guilt before he can be hung a second time. The main action of Oshima's black comedy is the blundering effort to reawaken R's identity, from his wretched background as a Korean immigrant to his carnal lust for his victim. This mock-epic attempt at recovering memories takes the cast from the newspapered walls of an imagined Korean hovel to the rooftops of Tokyo as a reenacted seems to turn all too real.

The director's not-so-subtle message is (in part) that R's original identity was shaped in the first place by the same sort of national prejudices that make the officials look like bigoted idiots, not to mention the very circumstance of being a Korean in Japan. From the way they act when restaging R's family life, Koreans are the n-words of Japan, viewed through a prism of minstrelsy as a rabble of slobbovian morons who piss on each other during family arguments. Having the Japanese act out their stereotypes of Koreans may be the best way to subvert those stereotypes, and it's definitely one of the funniest parts of an often-hilarious movie. As a black comedy it's like Dr. Strangelove in microcosm, with the stakes reduced to one life but with the cartoonish cast behaving just as ludicrously, or even more so in proportion to the situation.

Sacrilege: a drunken Christian priest loses his inhibitions and lunges for a singing partygoer's strap-on.

Death By Hanging is a kind of companion piece to Oshima's previous film, the one with the unfortunate English title Sing a Song of Sex. Despite the bawdy title, that film is an ominous, brilliant portrait of Japan on a precipice of revolt and reaction in the form of rape. In turn, despite its ominous English title, Death By Hanging revels in its absurdity and even throws in a Japanese bawdy song of the sort that superficially formed part of Sing a Song's subject matter. In both movies Oshima seems to be indicting a bawdy streak in Japanese culture that seems inherently reactionary and oppressive (not to mention complacent) insofar as it helps shape R's carnal lust and makes women eligible for the sort of rape the officials so casually or sometimes enthusiastically reenact.  

Death also renews an interest in Christianity that Oshima had expressed in his 1962 historical epic The Christian Revolt.It's apropos given the popularity of Christianity among Koreans, which makes it almost natural for Oshima to imagine R, who is based on a real-life convict who wrote a famous book of prison letters before his execution, as a Christ figure who has to die a second time, or as often as possible, for the imagined sins of Koreans as a race. Jesus's saying that he who imagines himself committing sin is just as guilty as if he had committed the actual act is pointedly invoked, with an Oshima twist that indicts those who imagine others committing sins like rape, as if R was fulfilling a Japanese expectation of carnal violence from Koreans. Any supposed Korean proclivity for rape or other crimes thus becomes a projection of Japanese culture's own yen for such atrocities. In effect, Oshima suggests, condemned Koreans, if not all condemned men, die a second death as the nation reassures itself that the dead deserved what they got, while their victims did not. That seems to be the point of the apparition (Akiko Koyama) who calls herself R's sister and tempts him to see his crime as a revolt against Japanese oppression. That the Japanese on some level buy into that interpretation seems apparent from the way the officials one by one start to see the sister when most of them hadn't at first. Eventually, there's an even more urgent need to "liquidate" this accusing ghost than there is to reawaken R's guilt. R's turn finally comes after the chief prosecutor, the one official who's retained some dignity throughout, dares him to leave the prison if he thinks himself innocent. R can't do it because he realizes he can't be innocent in Japan, even as he claims that he isn't guilty in the way the Japanese portray his guilt. In the end he accepts the noose again and the trapdoor opens beneath him, to reveal an empty noose below like the empty sepulcher of Christian myth. Perhaps this second death has exorcised whatever of R had haunted his executioners, but you can easily imagine an eternal recurrence of these scenes despite R's hope to die for the sake of all the other Rs. Death By Hanging can be heavyhanded at times but Oshima mostly succeeds at his Brechtian work of thought-provoking absurdity. The more I see of his films from the Sixties, the more it seems like one of the great bodies of work in the wild world of cinema.