Friday, April 30, 2010


Cleo Moore quit movies early and has been largely forgotten by now, but she was kind of a big deal in her heyday. She worked hard for someone who never really broke into A pictures. While I was searching for newspaper ad art for Lewis Seiler's Over-Exposed I learned that she promoted the picture with an extensive personal-appearance tour. As a further publicity stunt, she announced a plan to run for governor of Louisiana, having once been married to a son of Huey Long. The year before, when Women's Prison came out, some territories promoted it as a Cleo Moore movie because she was going to be appearing with it, or had been in town recently enough to be a bigger draw for locals than Ida Lupino. As the box copy for Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 2 says, "Moore was often the 'bait' in movie publicity campaigns." You can see that in the Women's Prison poster art, which features her more prominently than her role warrants. Over-Exposed, meanwhile, is her own star vehicle. For all I know, it was the biggest showcase she ever got from Hollywood.

This time out Moore plays Lily Krenshka, who has the misfortune of getting arrested on her first night on the job at a clip joint. She claims that she didn't know what went on there, but the cops don't care as they warn her out of town. She flies into a rage when someone snaps her picture outside the police station, but ends up trusting the old drunk with the camera when he invites her to his apartment so he can develop the rest of the roll before surrendering her shot. The old rummy is too good to be true. He makes no advances on her, but offers to teach her his trade. She's a quick study, and soon enough she's off to the big city to earn an honest living.

Strange to report, but the wire services don't just hire people off the street without a portfolio. But Lily perseveres with the encouragement of reporter Russell Bassett (Richard Crenna) and snaps some hot pictures of a burning building. The news service buys them but won't give her a full-time job. To make ends meet, she tries commercial work and takes glamour shots of herself before ending up in one of those wonderful obsolete trades, that of the nightclub photographer, the person who immortalizes your night on the town for a fee. She makes an important contact with a gossip columnist who wants shots of whoever might be slumming at Club Bomba. When he asks her to take a compromising shot of a well-connected man, she proves a smart cookie. She uses the picture as leverage so the subject will help her land a job at the new Club Coco, a ritzier, more mobbed-up venue where the camera girls dress far more glamorously.

As Lila Crane, Lily proves a master photo-psychologist. She knows exactly what to say to manipulate people into the most flattering poses. After impressing one grand dame of high society, she rises rapidly to become a leading society and fashion photographer. All the while, Russell pleads with her to return to photojournalism, her true calling. This tension between Lily's social climbing and her alleged vocation reminded me of Irving Rapper's Bad For Each Other from Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 1. In that picture, Charlton Heston is a physician (but not a bad girl) who betrays his vocation to become a society doctor and "ghost surgeon" rather than tend to his town's needy miners. There's probably a generic term for this kind of story, but "film noir" isn't it. On the other hand, Over-Exposed takes a more positive view of professional women, for the most part, than Women's Prison did. In that film, Ida Lupino's career as a cruel prison warden is implicitly blamed on her inability to feel love the way a real woman would. In this one, the leading lady isn't condemned for having a career, but exhorted to do more challenging work. There's also a kind of gender-role reversal, as Richard Crenna comes across as the emotionally needy partner in this particular couple. He actually gets a bit annoying as he constantly lectures Lily against selling out, and when he asks her to accompany him on some global reporting tour, his ulterior motive is all too obvious.

Over-Exposed is basically a social melodrama in a film noir shell. The opening promises something more sleazy than we get for the next hour, but things get rougher in the final 20 minutes. Lily has accidentally taken a picture of Club Coco's gangland backer that could ruin his alibi for a murder. Her first impulse when she realizes what she has is to suddenly take up Russell's offer of a vacation in Maine. Once she returns, her career collapses after the gossip columnist steals a not-for-publication pic of a dowager dying on the dance floor for use in a Confidential-style rag. Blackballed by her old society patrons, who blame her for the photo's publication, she desperately decides to blackmail the gangster in order to get one more big payday. Had this been a film noir, she would have blackmailed him instantly, especially since the film has told us that money is her only interest. But since this is a social melodrama, her mercenary motives lapse into complacency, leaving her content to make a fool of herself on some Person-to-Person style TV interview show. Only when she's kicked off the social ladder does she become once more the reckless mercenary we saw in the early reels. Only this time she's in over her head. While she plans carefully and sets up safeguards to deter the gangster from killing her, she doesn't anticipate being kidnapped outside her home as she leaves for the crucial rendezvous.

What we didn't anticipate is that Russell would suddenly turn into a young Col. Trautman, single-handedly taking out a gang of gangsters to save Lily from torture or worse. This twist is pretty unconvincing, as is Lily's last-minute submission to her rescuer. You get the impression that she's giving up any kind of photography for good in order to be Russell's wife, but not his partner. It makes you think that neither Russell nor the screenwriters really meant that talk about Lily doing serious work, and it ends the movie on a sour note.

Cleo Moore was 27 when she made Over-Exposed, her penultimate film. While this is her latest appearance in Bad Girls Vol. 2, I think she looks her best here, more svelte and definitely better dressed than in her other pictures. I also think she gave a decent performance this time, despite Sony's "earnest, if stilted" estimate of her talent. She seemed to be improving as she went along, but for whatever reason, she quit the business. She died of a heart attack shortly before her 45th birthday. Bad Girls Vol. 2 is the nearest thing to a monument she's ever gotten from the movie business. For extricating her out of oblivion, it should go down as one of the most interesting DVD releases of the year.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The best proof of the success of Piedone lo sbirro (1973) is the making of an official sequel two years later. It reunited star Bud Spencer and director "Steno" and a few of the cast members from the first film. Inspector Rizzo's landlady and her son, our hero's surrogate family, aren't back, but Enzo Cannavale returns as his comedy-relief assistant, Inspector Caputo, while the three American sailors who helped "Flatfoot" out in the first picture make a surprise appearance in the Crown Colony in mid-sequel.

By now Rizzo has become the captain of the Naples Narcotics Squad. Despite his triumph over the Marseilles mob in the first movie he's had a hard time stemming the drug tide. Naples is just a stop in a global network, the scope of which brings an American law-enforcement official (Robert Webber) to town to advise the local authorities. Already burdened by the usual idiot police bureaucracy, Rizzo resents the American's interference. The sequel maintains the original's reactionary, almost anti-imperialist tone regarding the U.S. presence, as our hero complains that the Americans treat Naples "like a colony." At the same time, an even more menacing American arrives: Frank Barella, a deported mobster who seems intent on muscling in on the drug network that extends all the way to Asia. He looks like the prime suspect in the death of the current boss. That man was beaten to death, and we've already seen that Barella is nearly as good with his fists as Rizzo is. Of course, the manner of death makes Rizzo himself an object of suspicion in the eyes of his stupid superiors. One thing everyone knows is that the dead gangster had an informant inside law enforcement, known only to him and his contacts in Asia. To get to the bottom of the corruption on his own side, Rizzo must race Barella to Bangkok, and from there to Hong Kong, to get the info that will help one break the network, while possibly making the other its master....

Captain Rizzo (Bud Spencer) pumps the locals for information in Bangkok (above) and fulfills his title obligation by being in Hong Kong (below)

Steno has two really bright ideas this time. One is to send Bud Spencer to Asia so that super-pugilist Rizzo can test his might against Muy Thai masters, Chinese boxers and sumo wrestlers. After seeing the first Piedone movie I suggested that the series might serve as Italian counterparts to Asian martial arts movies, and the sequel makes the comparison explicit. Asian martial arts fans will probably object to the ease with which Rizzo bludgeons Orientals into submission with his mighty fists, but let's all lighten up. These films are comedies; even though their crime plots are played straight and sometimes turn deadly serious, the fact that Rizzo never uses lethal weapons licenses Steno to milk his brawls for laughs. Just like the first film, this one enjoys an enthusiastic stunt crew who know how to sell Spencer's brawling style, and the original Italian cohort is supplemented by an equally adept Asian stunt crew. If you enjoy pure kinetic knockabout action and can stand some slapstick humor thrown in, Piedone a Hong Kong is great fun to watch.

One thing Rizzo has going for him is an ability to soak up damage. This comes in handy often during Flatfoot in Hong Kong.

The other bright idea was to cast a Seventies icon, Al Lettieri, as Frank Barella. I don't know what was going on with his career that sent him to Italy in the last year of his life after a tremendous run of Hollywood work (The Godfather, The Getaway, Mr. Majestyk etc.) but this film is staged on such a global scale that it doesn't look like he was slumming. As a mighty lummox in his own right he's a perfect foil for Bud Spencer, and he brings enough two-fisted charisma to the part that you buy him as a worthy antagonist for Rizzo. The only disappointment you might feel is that a plot twist late in the story makes what looked like an inevitable fist-to-fist showdown between the two stars impossible.

Al Lettieri in Flatfoot in Hong Kong. Below, Rizzo pretends that he's the mobster while Barella's a cop. So what's the truth?...

Sometimes the comedy here is too crude (as when Caputo has to dress in drag for a sting operation), and there's an ominous turn toward childish sentimentality with the introduction of an orphaned Japanese boy -- notice that this brat, who doesn't even appear until about two-thirds through the picture, makes it onto the poster -- but Bud Spencer as a solo act is easier to take than when he's saddled with Terence Hill as his partner. I like Spencer's low-key, sardonic manner as Rizzo when he's not brawling, and his style still sets the tone for the movie as a whole. The first two Flatfoot films have been pretty entertaining, and I recommend them to anyone interested in trying poliziottesci lite on the Italian Seventies menu. Steno's direction remains efficiently dynamic while the de Angelis brothers work fresh variations on the Piedone theme into a score rich with familiar cop-movie music. The Asian angle and Al Lettieri in one of his last movies incline me to recommend the sequel even more than the original. Neither is anything close to a masterpiece but they're good, dumb fun that don't make you feel stupid watching them.

The English-language trailer (under the alternater title Flatfoot Goes East) also plays up "the little Japanese boy" a lot more than the picture justifies. It was posted to YouTube by Spencerhilltrailer:

And for the sake of comparison, here's a German trailer that makes no distinction between "Buddy" Spencer and the character he plays. This one was uploaded by Rialtofilm:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Wendigo Meets MAMA DRACULA (1980)

My friend Wendigo is a vampire movie fan, but he has a problem with vampire comedies. It's not that he objects to mockery of supernatural creatures, but as he sees it most vampire comedies go for the oldest, most obvious gags, the kind that seem meant to make you groan rather than laugh. You know, "pain in the neck" gags and stuff along those lines instead of genuinely funny characters and situations. One of the most recent attempts, The Vampire's Assistant, is actually one of the more successful in Wendigo's eyes because its unique mythos required the writers to be creative in mining humor from the story instead of using the standard vampire gags. He liked Love at First Bite as a kid but likes it less now. He tends to prefer comedies in which vampires happen to appear but are treated as more-or-less straight menaces, as in The Monster Squad or Vampire in Brooklyn. So when I told him I had an obscure European vampire comedy from a Mill Creek Entertainment box set, he approached Mama Dracula with some trepidation -- and he was right to do so.

Boris Szulzinger's film is a deservedly obscure oddity that illustrates the rapidly shifting fortunes people can suffer in the movie racket. It features not one, but two performers from iconic Seventies films. Louise Fletcher, taking the title role, was just five years removed from her Oscar-winning portrayal of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, while Maria Schneider had Last Tango in Paris and Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger on her resume. Were they lured with big bucks after others steered clear, or were they already forced to be less choosy about their work? They would certainly have to be after this project, which could have been an understandable career killer for anyone involved.

Above, Maria Schneider receives an undeserved tribute from the Mama Dracula Dancers. Below, Louise Fletcher tries to think happy thoughts.

Mama Dracula is none other than our old friend Erzsebet Bathory under a more marketable name. She may be Countess Dracula (not that that causes anyone alarm outside of a small Transylvanian suburb) but she lives in Castle Bathory, is named Erzebet, bathes in the blood of virgins and was once bricked inside the walls of her castle centuries ago. As she explains, the place was riddled with secret passages so it was easy to escape. Since then, she's been practicing the same hygenic regimen that has kept her looking like a big-boned American woman in her forties. But times are getting tougher. "In zis decadent modern vurld of ours," she asks in her charming accent, "vere can vun find wirgins?"

In her desperation she turns to modern science, summoning the allegedly eminent Dr. Peter Van Bloed to Transylvania for a "Blood Congress." It's a congress of one, as the egotistical little nebbish (he fantasizes out loud about getting the Nobel) finds himself the sole guest of the Countess and her eccentric twin sons, Vladimar and Ladislaus. While their mother aspires to elegance, and would never dare bare fangs (though she does offer to "bare you my secrets"), her boys -- wherever they came from -- oh, where to begin?

Jimmy Shuman, dressed like a lower-caste Time Lord, flanked by the incredible Wajnberg Brothers.

If you've ever tried to watch the Ritz Brothers in movies from the 1930s and 1940s, you might have an idea of our problem with Marc-Henri and Alexander Wajnberg. While the Marx Brothers and the Howard brothers crafted distinctive individual personalities for themselves, the Ritzes tried to be a sort of zany collective that forced you to laugh by sheer strength of numbers. You had three guys you couldn't really tell apart all yelling, laughing, pulling faces, etc. at the same time. There are only two Wajnbergs, but they're just as bad -- and English isn't their first language. Wendigo gives them credit for trying, but he assumes that they were cast for their goofy looks. They look like funhouse mirror versions of Frank Langella's Dracula and wear the full vampire regalia when they're not working their day jobs at the Vamp dress shop in the nearby big city. They seem to have been given little direction except to be funny, and they may not have understood the direction.

They do get one elaborately -- let's say ponderously constructed gag that depends on the film's odd rules for vampires. The Countess and her boys are daywalkers who are unharmed by garlic or crosses -- though one of the brothers is repelled by a Star of David stitched on the rear of a teenager's panties. They bow to tradition in one respect: they cast no reflection in mirrors. This is all meant to set up a gag the next morning, when they get out of bed and perform their ablutions (including peeing into the sink) at back-to-back toilets designed as mirror images of each other. It looks like the "mirror" scene from Duck Soup, except the brothers are doing it on purpose: it dawns on you that they're acting as mirror images of each other for hygiene's sake. And just as the stupidity of that idea settles in, Dr. Bloed appears, sees one twin facing his own "reflection," sees none of himself, and draws a frightened conclusion. Here we should note that as a comedian, Jimmy Shuman as the doctor makes the Wajnbergs look like Laurel and Hardy. His is a role that requires the actor to either act scared often or keep up a steady barrage of wisecracks. Shuman does neither. He's simply presented to us as an egotistical nebbish who gets worried a few times but finally adopts the persona of a mad scientist. For example:

Our whole future lies in biosynthesis, in generic engineering. Imagine being able to transfer the genetic qualities of human hemoglobin to the e. coli chromosome by the plasmid method, and thus control the regulation of the genetic structure of cells!...But I'm never going to find the necessary genes in rabbit blood!

Dr. Bloed is introduced as if he's going to be the main character of the movie, just as Virginia the virginal but horny barmaid he encounters at a Transylvanian inn seems set up to be the film's romantic interest. Wrong on both counts. This film just keeps throwing new characters on top of the old ones, adopting the Hellzapoppin approach of trying everything in the hope that anything will work. Thus Maria Schneider is introduced as an assistant vampire hunter to a blustering inspector in a deerstalker. He assumes the Countess and her boys are innocent because he sees them in broad daylight. It's this defective detective, in fact, who finally deflowers Virginia, making her fair game for every other lout in the tavern until the whole building explodes. Transylvania, apparently, is where they put the bang in gangbang.

Maria continues the investigation but finds herself sabotaged by a punctured tire. The tire has fang marks in it. The fang marks bleed. It's that kind of movie. And it was at this point, Wendigo says, that it started to change from something insufferably inept to something compellingly bizarre. In his words, it had crossed a Rubicon. It had gotten so bad that it might become good. At the least, it would not be boring, but train wrecks rarely are.

Szulzinger's pile-it-on approach nearly pays off in a climax that brings the entire cast together in the Countess's "cast-tell." Separate mobs of traditional torchbearing villagers and the city men whose fiances have been snatched from the Vamp boutique storm the castle (the city men arriving in a bus bearing a "Fiances Lib" sign. They storm right past a vampire and into ... a fashion show. It's the new line of ball gowns, allegedly inspired by classic movies. After heckling and throwing food at their vampire host (an audience identification moment if ever there was one), the angry crowd settles down to watch their women strut their stuff. This means a parade of ghastly-garbed proto-goths as one of the brothers recites film titles: "Death in Wenice...Ze Birds... Psycho... Some--Like--It--Hot!...Saturday Night Feewer...Apocalypse--Now...Chaws..."

"Ze Birrds!"

And in the middle of this, Dr. Bloed and his questionably-gendered assistant Rosa burst in to announce the success of their great experiment. Until then, the incompetent scientist had only been able to make gold. But once Rosa suggested the formula "E=mc2," artificial blood became a reality with utopian promise for mankind. Let a vampire explain it to a mummy:

You, poor think! There is no need to be scared of dyink anymore. From now on, blood is awailable anytime, anyplace, buckets of it! Anyone who vants to be a wampire can be a wampire ven they would alike, vere they would alike, and vit who they would alike. Humanity can live in the lap of luxury. Eternity is vithin reach!

It's still not exactly funny, but it is almost charmingly insane, a rare moment of mad inspiration saved for last. But it's a hard slog to get there. Wendigo says that if he hadn't been watching it socially he might have given up on it early. So if you dare, watch it with a friend -- and hope he'll be your friend afterward.

Mama Dracula might be enjoyed more thoroughly in a dinner-theater format with the right cuisine, but we have our doubts.

Wendigo sees the film as a complete mess, a mishmash of acting styles, Fletcher's overacting not exactly counterbalanced by Schneider's underacting -- or is it non-acting? He had a hard time wrapping his mind around the odd geography that requires the Draculas to commute through a primitive village to their modern shop in a thoroughly modern city -- a shop that is apparently directly linked to their castle by an underground tunnel. He was demoralized initially by how derivative the film was -- the wirgin-blood concept is stolen from Andy Warhol's Dracula, and the brothers seem influenced by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Worse, at every moment the Mill Creek copy is a murky mess in its own right. But as the film snowballs downhill it develops a shape and momentum of its own. It eventually got one thing right: it ceased to be a mere vampire-movie parody and achieved its own uniquely idiotic inspiration. It ended up being not quite one of Wendigo's favorite vampire comedies, but one of the damnedest movies he's ever seen. He recommends it to bad-movie buffs only, whether they're vampire fans or not.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

MAY STORY (Soon-ji, 2009)

On May 18, 1980, the Gwangju (or Kwangju) Uprising broke out against South Korea's military dictatorship. In 2008, the city of Gwangju staged a mass re-enactment of the events that are now celebrated as a milestone of South Korea's quest for democracy. While the uprising itself has been dramatized in Korean cinema, director Park Kwang-man used the re-enactment as a backdrop for a story that suggests that, for some people, history hasn't been as neatly reconciled as the civic commemoration might proclaim.

The Korean title names the film after its main character, a chicken farmer who runs a roadside restaurant. While she's attractive, she was unpopular in school because she was a bit of a hick who, as one classmate says, smelled of chicken shit. Her father disappeared during the 1980 uprising, and she goes to the nearby big city on every anniversary date to see if the authorities have fresh info on his fate. In a way, she's stuck in the past, sneered at by the same classmate who moved out and up in the world. That woman gets a plate of food dumped on her head for her trouble, while Soon-ji has to catfight another female customer who thinks she's flirting with her husband. Jung, a local cop, has his heart set on her, but she's about to be swept off her feet by an unlikely suitor.

Jang Se-yoon as Soon-ji.

One night, three guys in grungy period costumes drive up to the restaurant in a jeep just after closing. She sends them away, but after listening to the radio, which is rebroadcasting its original coverage of the uprising (much as American TV reprises its 2001 reporting every September 11) she decides to whip up some poultry and take it to where the three knuckleheads are camping out. They're reenacters, two of whom are in it for fun. The third, Jagu, is either quite the amateur Method actor or barking mad. He talks about the Uprising as if it's happening now. His passion on the subject, on top of his good looks, attract Soon-ji, and after helping them break into a police armory (and beat up Jung) to get weapons for the re-enactment, she makes love with Jagu. There's an eerie quality to these scenes; Jagu's confusion of past and present, perhaps provoked by the radio broadcasts, seems to make the past present, so that what unfolds is not so much reenactment as recurrence.

"When the lying Buddhas stand up, a new world will begin." Soon-ji discusses a dream with Jagu (Kim Yoon-seong). We will only see the dream itself, sort of, at the end of the film.

After promising Jung to make up for her misdeeds, Soon-ji travels to Gwangju, where her own mental balance is challenged by the disorienting blend of serious reenactment and public celebration. Jagu and his cronies are in the front line of the reenactment, ready to take fake fire. But when one goes down, Jagu freaks out, despite the obvious ritualistic activity going on around him. He really thinks the government has killed his friend, and his panic, if not his delusion, spreads to Soon-ji. Before long he's out looking for revenge -- and his gun, unlike most others, has live ammo in it....

Jagu and company recon the scene in Gwangju before hitting the street with dire consequences (below).

Some of the story details are a bit contrived -- do these guys really need to break into an armory to play their parts better, and are some people going to be staging their own private reenactment games inside of buildings away from the main action? -- but that doesn't compromise the tone of Park's picture. He had a brilliant idea to exploit a massive public event and the idea of historical reenactment itself. Reenacting a recent event like the Gwangju Uprising creates more opportunities for a meaningful collision of past and present than, let's say, a Civil War reenactment would. Park intuited a possibly inevitable consequence of an entire society's insistence on pretending that the present had become a past that's still painful or provocative for many Koreans. It put me in mind of William Faulkner's quote: "the past isn't gone; it isn't even past." The fact that Jagu has no rational backstory motive for his delusion that we know of may dilute the impact a little, but Park may be saying that the re-enactment itself may be a mild act of collective insanity, and that people like Jagu or Soon-ji are a kind of collateral damage from events that can't substitute for the closure she needs (regarding her father) and he may not be capable of feeling.

Above, a scene from the Gwangju reenactment. Below, Soon-ji and Jagu's private drama nears a bloody conclusion above the celebration.

Soon-ji is no classic -- the early part before Jagu arrives is often inane -- but Park's inspired use of the uprising reenactment and good performances from Jang Se-yoon in the title role and Kim Yoon-seong as Jagu make it worth a look for anyone interested in Korean cinema or Korean history, or for tourists through the wild world of cinema in general.

Here's a pretty long trailer for Soon-ji, uploaded to YouTube by m2m129:

Saturday, April 24, 2010


If you're Sony Pictures Entertainment and you're going to release two movie collections titled Bad Girls of Film Noir, there's a one-in-eight chance that one of your offerings will be a women-in-prison film. Imagine your good fortune when you happen to have a film called Women's Prison in your extensive B-movie library. Lewis Seiler directed it, Crane Wilbur and Jack DeWitt wrote it, but the main attractions are the bad girls. Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter and Cleo Moore are among the lead convicts, and their warden is Ida Lupino. How could you go wrong?

Easy. For starters, make your women convicts the least hard-boiled, least menacing bunch of cons you can imagine. The inmate population are really a merry sorority once you get to know them, and once you get over your own terror at the prospect of exile from home and hubby. We actually get off to a strong start as we follow Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) into the can. She's no criminal, but she happened to kill a kid while speeding. She can't take the confinement and isolation, and spends her first night on a non-stop crying jag until the guards have to put her in a straitjacket and dump her in a padded cell.

But Helene gradually drifts to the periphery of the picture, which proves to be an ensemble piece showcasing a number of harmless types. Cleo Moore, for instance, is a southern-accented bimbo determined to improve her diction. Vivian Marshall does impersonations: a passable Bette Davis on her own, but when she mimics prison personnel (including Lupino) the relevant actresses dub in their own voices. Jan Sterling is such a good egg that rather than have a guard discover Audrey Totter in a tryst with her smuggled-in husband from the adjoining men's prison, she burns her own hand with an iron. There aren't any rivalries or factions in this prison, unless you count the four black women who share their own cell. The film's just a little bit stereotypical about these four. They sing in close harmony and one of them is shown (with the cinematic equivalent of a straight face) singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" while scrubbing the floor. But they get along with the white girls easily enough, though it may have been different had there been five of them.

"I'd know those legs anywhere!" Juanita Moore welcome Jan Sterling back to stir. Below, the hand won't look as good as those legs after this stunt.

There's hardly a hardened criminal in the bunch, unless you count Sterling's repeat-offender check forger. Women's Prison is more interested in portraying its imprisoned women as victims, not of society, but of their vicious warden, Amelia Van Zandt. This character, and the casting of the generation's lone female auteur in the part, may be the most offensive thing about this picture. Van Zandt is a control freak indifferent to the suffering she causes and dedicated to breaking the will of her charges. "I know these women, all of them," she says, "and only a strong mind can control them." When Helene Jensen freaks out on that first night, Van Zandt has her straitjacketed mainly because the garment can be strapped on so tight that the new fish won't be able to scream.

The inevitable sensitive (male) doctor -- played by Lupino's husband, Howard Duff -- offers this insulting amateur psychoanalysis of the warden:

Dr. Crane: May I tell you what's wrong with you?...You dislike most of the women here because, deep down, you're jealous of them.

Van Zandt: That's absurd.

Crane: You're feminine, attractive. You must have had opportunities to marry. Maybe you even cared for somebody once in your cold way.

VZ: How dare you!?

Crane: But possibly he turned to someone who could give him what he really wanted: warmth, understanding, love. There's hardly a woman inside these walls who doesn't know what love is.

VZ: Yes, and that's why most of them are here.

Crane: Exactly. Even the broken wrecks have known some kind of love, and that's why you hate them.

The film goes on to confirm this laymen's analysis when Van Zandt is cornered inside the padded cell by a vengeful male con during a riot. Threatening him with reprisals against his wife, not knowing that she's already dead, the warden cracks and raves "I hate them all! I hate them all!" before Dr. Crane calls for the straitjacket. Maybe I'm being politically correct, but there's something ugly about this. There've been evil and sadistic male wardens in prison films, and some of that evil sadism may well be blamed on sexual or social dysfunction, but the way Women's Prison goes about it you're invited to assume that something's wrong with Van Zandt just for being a warden instead of somebody's wife. Having to perform this role seems like a penance for Lupino, an almost unconscious punishment of her by Hollywood for being uppity enough to become a producer and director. However, if you resist reading too much into the role, you can probably get some campy pleasure out Lupino's chic villainy, whether she's slapping the daylights out of a pregnant con or virtually climbing the walls of that padded cell.

Above, Lupino lays the smack down on Audrey Totter. Below, disguised escapees (l-r) Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore and Vivian Marshall threaten revenge.

Columbia pitched Women's Prison as a racier film than it really is, and the film presents itself as a kind of social problem picture denouncing the persistence of co-ed prisons -- the sexes are segregated but are all in the same compound. Today, Sony pitches it as a film noir, but despite its dark and shadowy moments it falls short of the genre standard. For a film set in prison there's little sense of criminality or guilt in it. The women prisoners are somehow too good to be true, and that's a no-no for noir. But since Sony is also sort of selling the Bad Girls collections as camp (why else advertise Cleo Moore's limitation as an actress?) Women's Prison would seem to belong. It's definitely a document of its time, and its certainty that it will shock audiences is one of its more charming features now.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Brief: REVENGE (Boi s Ten'yu 2: Revansh, 2007)

At first glance, nothing seemed to say "wild world of cinema" more than an action-packed Russian movie about a boxer feuding with the Mexican mafia, but Anton Megerdichev's movie, a Weinstein Company DVD release in America, is both more and less than meets the eye. For starters, "Revenge" proves to be a sequel to an earlier "Shadow Boxing" movie that may not be available as an American disc. But even without a recap of the previous film, it's fairly easy to figure out what's been happening. Our hero is Artem Kolchin (Dennis Nikiforov), an aspiring fighter in a middling weight class. His path to a title fight with an American champion took a detour that sent him to jail. The detour involved a powerful gangster who also ended up in prison. The sequel (which is subtitled "Revenge" in the original Russian) shows Artem a free man with his wife, presumably retired from boxing until his old manager comes up with a deal that will finally land him that title shot. Artem goes to America to train and shakes his ring rust quite fast. He wins his first comeback fight by a one-punch knockout. That makes him the hero of the gym, except in the eyes of Cesar, a Mexican kid with a big chip on his shoulder and a desire to be the alpha dog. Their rivalry finally explodes when a sparring match gets out of control and Artem accidentally beats Cesar to death.

Cesar's dad is Felix Mendez, a bigtime gangster who demands the same revenge the title does. After he sends a hitman into Artem's rented home, our hero decides to flee the country, but he and his wife take separate flights. He makes it back to Russia, but she doesn't. Now she'll be killed if Artem doesn't return and submit himself to Mendez's vengeance. Somehow, word of all this has reached the gangster from the first film in his cell in the city of Vladimir. Since Mendez has ties to Russian organized crime, a tough cop (also from the first film?) negotiates a scenario in which the gangster will leave prison, take out Mendez and help Artem rescue his wife. Fearing a double-cross by the cops, the gangster soon violently shakes his police tail. When he and Artem reach America, the gangster promptly delivers Artem to Mendez. But Artem's friends in the States have a hidden ace: the gangster has a son here whom the good guys take hostage, demanding Artem and his wife in exchange. While the intrigues between the Mexican and Russian crimelords play themselves out, Artem has to get back in shape fast to make his title fight date....

I'm not sure what I was expecting that would give this film a distinctly Russian flavor, but I finished it thinking it could have been made practically anywhere. It's filmed in a kind of generic global style that's heavy on needless flashbacks and flashy camera tricks. Megerdichev tries every trick in the book to make his fights visually interesting; the results are inevitably hit-or-miss, but in the climactic title bout especially he does succeed in dramatizing boxing in some fresh ways. To his credit, he doesn't stage Rocky fights in which every punch is a haymaker; his fighters duck and block and make each other miss, and even clinch at times. He films at variable speeds and freeze-frames occasionally to highlight near-misses and decisive blows. He shakes the camera and blurs the image and throws in disorienting montages to portray Artem's punchy perspective at crisis moments. The director's most successful gambit comes just as Artem is making his big comeback. The champ is still getting in some heavy shots, and after one solid hit to Artem's head the screen goes black -- and stays black for tense seconds before fading back in to as Artem shakes off the effects of a powerful blow. Megerdichev also doesn't overdo the comeback; the champ remains a formidible opponent throughout, defying our expectations by getting up not once, but twice after potential knockout blows from our hero. He takes the best Artem dishes out, and that keeps the fight suspenseful until a clever anticlimax. Once the champ gets up that second time, you're most likely asking yourself whether Artem has got anything left to put him down with, and you may be thinking he can still lose -- but then the bell rings to end the fight. That leaves us with a different kind of anticlimax: a split decision.

"Shadow Boxing 2," as it's known in some territories, disappointed me as an action movie -- Artem does too much running and not enough ass-kicking for my taste -- but it ends up an interesting experiment in post-Raging Bull boxing expressionism. If there'd been more boxing in it, I'd be willing to call it at least a halfway-decent fight film. As it is, it's a muddled, overlong, sometimes overstylized affair that might still be of interest to fight-film fans and anyone curious about Russian cinema outside the art houses.

This Russian trailer was uploaded to YouTube by sjada22:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

FLATFOOT (Piedone lo sbirro, 1973)

Bud Spencer is getting a lifetime achievement award from the Italian film industry at this year's Donatello ceremony, Italy's equivalent of the Oscars. The man born Carlo Pedersoli will be sharing the honor with his frequent screen partner, Mario "Terence Hill" Girotti. In the U.S. Spencer is probably best known, to the few who know him at all today, as Bambino, the hulking sidekick of Hill's Trinity in the series of cowboy comedies that for many sounded the death knell of the spaghetti western. Spencer teamed with Hill in a wider range of films, including contemporary stories after westerns finally went under. He also earned opportunities to star in movies without Hill, which is where things get interesting for me. Terence Hill has the sort of face you want to slug, and his shtick gets old really fast by my clock. Spencer, by contrast, is just a big oaf, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. So why should he suffer by association with Hill? With that generosity of spirit I recently acquired the latest Spaghetti Western Bible collection from our old friends at Videoasia. This fourth volume is the second devoted to Hill and Spencer, and while it's dubiously labeled in that only two of the ten films included are spaghetti westerns (Damiano Damiani's A Genius and the infamous spaghetti musical Rita of the West) it does include all four films in the Piedone series of police comedies Spencer made between 1973 and 1980.

A closer translation of the first film's title would be "Bigfoot the Cop," but you can imagine the confusion that'd create in the U.S., however sasquatch-like Spencer may seem at times. "Flatfoot," meanwhile, is good old American slang for a cop and signals the somewhat comical nature of this series. All four Piedone films are directed by the mononymous "Steno" (Stefano Vanzina), who directed many films for the popular comedian Toto. He launches the series with a dynamic action scene that sets the tone for the first episode.

A black American sailor has gone crazy in the middle of Naples. He's made his way to the top of a tall building and has started taking potshots at the crowds below while raving about hating white people and being free. Steno films this on a massive scale with extras fleeing the sailor's gunshots as snipers move into position atop nearby buildings. He films from below, with the sailor a speck high above, and from the roof as the gunman commands a vast expanse of cityscape. Nobody wants to shoot the sailor, but there's no reasoning with him, and an American officer leaves his fate to the police. At that moment, as a cop on street level raises his rifle, a big foot comes down on top of it, and from a low angle we see the full bulk of Bud Spencer as he finishes a cigarette. Who's this guy? the American officer asks. "That would take a long time to explain," a cop replies.

As the credits roll over a jaunty theme by the the de Angelis brothers, Inspector Rizzo -- Piedone -- makes his way patiently up to the roof. He spies the sailor reloading, then waits for him to empty his gun again before charging. A brief battle follows, with the American putting up more of a fight than Spencer's fans might expect and nearly throwing Rizzo off the roof. Eventually Rizzo doesn't so much knock the man out as he knocks him back to his senses. After he surrenders, the inspector finds a telltale white packet on him. Cocaine has come to Naples.

Rizzo is a policeman who refuses to use a gun. He appears to despise all weapons, later dismissing a knife as a child's toy unfit for men. He's confident in his ability to settle matters with his fists, but he's not just a primitive brute, appearances notwithstanding. One reason he avoids guns is that he strives to keep situations from escalating into violence as much as possible. He's developed a rapport, a modus vivendi even, with the Sicilian Mafia, which this film presents as a conservative force in a society that finds itself under siege by the drug menace. Piedone lo sbirro is a reactionary, populist film, the sort that probably isn't meant for viewers outside Italy. It reminds me of Japanese movies with its ambivalent emphasis on the presence of Americans, and it teases briefly that they might be the source of the new drugs. The truth is a little closer to home: gangsters from Marseilles (i.e. "the French connection") are moving the drugs with help from a sleazy, flashy pimp called "the Baron." His men are handing out free samples outside schools to get kids hooked, including the son of Rizzo's landlady. "Flatfoot" takes a paternal interest in the boy (and a potentially matrimonial interest in the mother) that extends to slapping the brat when he catches the kid stealing to pay for more dope.

Tough love from Flatfoot. "So, I'm not your father, eh!" Actually, he's not, but he feels entitled to slap anyone, anyway. I'd say, "Bad cop; no donut," except I don't think he eats donuts. Can you imagine if he did???

Rizzo thinks he can crack down on the drug trade by getting tough on the Baron -- he may have a code against killing but he's not above using his ham fists to torture folks -- but he's held back by a by-the-book new police commissioner who frowns on our hero's unorthodox tactics and his semi-cordial relations with the Mafia. Rizzo gets suspended after the commissioner catches him in the middle of an unauthorized beatdown of the Baron, but he carries on the fight with still more help from the Mafia and some crucial assistance from his new friend Jho, the cleaned-up American sailor, and some of his fellow gobs. Things get further complicated when one of his favorite informants and the Baron are killed, leaving Rizzo to wonder who the real villain is. Could it be one of his quasi-allies in the Mafia? Could it be the commissioner who seems to do everything possible to impede the investigation? It all gets very confusing, and as Rizzo tells the commissioner, "You know what Flatfoot does when he's confused." If you don't, he punches people, and if he punches enough of them, he may find out the truth in time....

The stakes can be high in Flatfoot, as a dwarf informant learns, but the film maintains a lighthearted tone throughout.

Flatfoot seems designed as a family-friendly poliziotteschi movie, free from extreme gun violence, nudity and other distinguishing traits of the adult version of the genre. At the same time, its emphasis on choreographed unarmed combat makes it look like an attempted Italian answer to Asian martial-arts films. In this respect, the film is pretty good. Spencer is a convincing brawler and he's supported by a game stable of stuntmen who sell well for him. Steno keeps the different fight scenes lively, particularly one in which Rizzo routs an entire motorcycle gang with just a borrowed chain for a weapon.

Steno can pull off the kind of car and cycle chases you expect from the Italian cop genre, but Flatfoot's unarmed combats are its highlights.

The regrettable exception is the major comic set piece, a melee set on a fishing boat pitting Rizzo and the three Americans against drug smugglers. The problem isn't that the scene is shot for laughs, but that it goes on too long after it runs out of invention. It's amusing to see Spencer swatting people with fish, but Steno clearly runs out of ideas at some point. Worse, one of the Americans is an acrobat. Does it strike any of you that Italians have some odd obsession with acrobats? They seem to like to see guys turning backflips and somersaults without appreciating that stunts like that only make their fight scenes look more fake. I can't suspend disbelief with some idiot tumbling all over the place, but for an Italian audience all that matters is that it looks funny. But that aside, I found Flatfoot fairly amusing just for its peculiar approach to material I'm used to seeing handled in a far more brutal fashion. I'd recommend it to any fan of Italian police movies just for the sake of variety.

Inspector Rizzo becomes a globe-trotter in the three later films, which take him to Hong Kong, South Africa and Egypt. I assume that someone in Europe released the Piedone series on DVD, since Videoasia probably wouldn't have them otherwise. Piedone lo sbirro looks a little battered in spots but comes, as do all the sequels, in nicely letterboxed format. The new collection, deceptively titled Trinity:Hands Up! Eyes Down! Pockets Out! teams Spencer with Terence Hill in two Africa-set adventures, All the Way Boys and I'm For the Hippopotamus, while Hill stars in the two westerns as well as Renegade (which first appeared in Grindhouse Experience Vol. 2) and Virtual Weapon. I'm looking forward to the other Flatfoots and to the two spaghettis, so expect to read more about them in the near future.

Here's an English-language trailer for Flatfoot aimed at the American market, uploaded to YouTube by spencherhilltrailer.