Get thee behind me, Satan…

Posted in Uncategorized on 13 July 2016 by bdnm

Devil’s Doorway (1950), dir. Anthony Mann, w/ Robert Taylor ([Broken] Lance Poole), Louis Calhern (Verne Coolan), Paula Raymond (Orrie Masters)

Seen on TCM as part of their Westerns celebration.

There’s something great about Anthony Mann westerns.  Mann directed several Westerns in the 1950s, and Mann’s Westerns retell the story of the West, often valorized in the 1930s and 1940s, with a critical eye.

And this film is no different — Taylor plays a Shoshone Indian who had served in the US Cavalry during the Civil War.  He returns to his ranch outside of Medicine Bow, WY, a decorated veteran and welcomed home by the old timers in the town.  But in the very first scene, there is a hint of shifting winds.  Louis Calhern plays a lawyer who is motivated by a racial hatred for the Native Americans, helping sheepherders move their flocks near and even onto Poole’s land.  We see the town doctor unwilling to go and tend to Taylor’s old father.  And then the film jumps ahead five years.  Taylor, by this time, has become the richest rancher in the area, but Wyoming has become incorporated as a US Territory, and the laws of the land forbid Taylor as an Indian from owning land, so that his land is now fair game for the homesteaders.

In the history of the US, the relations of European Americans and Native Americans is marked by land grabs, sometimes by force and sometimes through legal mechanisms.  With the stroke of a pen, rather than at the point of a sword, the status of Robert Taylor’s Lance changes from honored brave, and decorated veteran, to “ward of the state” with no legal rights or recognition of his own.  There is an arrogance in the government’s view that they have the right to so define him.

What complicates matters in the film is that his attorney is A. Masters (Raymond), who turns out to be a woman attorney.  As a woman in a man’s world, she is quite familiar with prejudice, but she is also, as a woman in 19th c. America, ready to yield, a course she argues Lance follow.  But there is no way to compromise here.  Calhern is not willing to accept compromise.  For him, compromise is Lance’s surrender.  And Lance, as a brave and a war hero, cannot so yield.

The film comes to an end that could be predicted at the beginning, and yet, it leaves one with a bad taste in one’s mouth.  And in the course of the film, we come to really despise the racism we see in Calhern, but also, watching the film in the 21st century, we despise the sexism that largely gets a bye.  And we really come to despise the legal machinations that allow one group of people to take from another without compensation.

Aside from the story,the film’s DP was John Alton, one of the greatest American cinematographers, so the film is beautifully shot in black and white.

Well, more than 21, actually…

Posted in TCM Movies on 12 July 2016 by bdnm

21 Days (1940), dir. Basil Dean, w/ Vivien Leigh (Wanda), Laurence Olivier (Larry), Leslie Banks (Keith), Francis L. Sullivan (Mander)

Watched on TCM

I found this an interesting movie, but a bit puzzling.  When watching it on TCM, I didn’t see any sort of date (the program guide used to provide the date readily, but not so much any more).  I thought it might be 1938, as there is no reference in the film to WWII, which has to have started by the time filming commenced.  It may be that, as the war did not feature in Galsworthy’s story, there was no need to bring it in, but I was still amazed at a contemporary film shot during WWII but without any reference to the war (or the looming war).

Laurence Olivier had not yet made it “big,” as he appears in the titles only after Leslie Banks, who was established as a movie actor, and Vivien Leigh, who had only a year previously made such a smash as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.  And this film did not do anything to advance his career.  He does a serviceable job, but I can’t say that he does much more than that.

Basic plot is as follows:  Larry, Keith’s younger and somewhat ne’er-do-well brother, is involved with Wanda.  It turns out that Wanda has a husband (she thought he was dead) who is a rather brutish man.  When Larry and Wanda find the husband in Wanda’s flat, and he demands money, and then attacks Wanda, he and Larry struggle and the husband falls down dead.  Larry takes the body outside and props it up in a somewhat deserted corner of the deserted street.  He happens to meet an old bum, who had been a clergyman, and he begins to chat with him.  Later, when the police discover the body, they assume that the bum has committed the murder.

Keith is a prominent barrister in London who is likely to be elevated to the judgeship.  If Larry’s altercation with the dead man should come out, it will derail his plans.  He tries to get Larry to let the trial play out, arguing that the evidence is weak and circumstantial against the bum, who will likely be let go.  During this time, Larry and Wanda try to squeeze a lifetime together into 21 days, at the end of which the trial should be over and the verdict delivered.  If the bum is not freed, Larry will turn himself in.

As it turns out, of course, that proves unnecessary in the end.

The acting in the film is nothing remarkable.  Banks has a stagey quality and Olivier was still primarily a stage actor and keeps some of his mannerisms, which seem a bit affected on the big screen.  Leigh’s acting is less stagy, but the most compelling film performance in this production was that of Francis L. Sullivan as the now derelict clergyman.

I have to say that what I found fascinating, though, was a scene at Keith’s club where he and fellow judges and barristers were discussing his promising career.  At one point each of the judges and barristers tells of one “illegal” thing they did (e.g. didn’t pay fare on a bus, or the like) and the result, a comic comeuppance showing that crime does not pay.  During this scene, as the torch was passed around the table from one judge to another, the camera did a pan.  The way the camera panned, though, it seemed to me that the camera was atop the table and that it wasn’t panning so much as that the table was spinning to the next raconteur.  It was a bit contrived, but it was a nice effect.

I also liked the final day Larry and Wanda spent together — they go to the sea on a boat, and spend a day at the carnival.  The boat trip and some of the scenes by the seashore were clearly shot on location and not in a studio, and I’m always happy when we get out of the studio and into the streets.  In one scene, Larry and Wanda ride the roller coaster together, and the camera is affixed to the front of the coaster, turned back towards Larry and Wanda.  This was before there were steadicams, so far as I know, but the camera itself doesn’t jump, but we get the sense of the ups and downs of a coaster.  Again, this was filmed on location, which means even greater kudos to the DP.

 

Once more into the breach…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on 6 July 2016 by bdnm

47 Ronin (Shijûshichinin no shikaku) (1994) dir. Kon Ichikawa, w/ Ken Takakura (Oishi), Kiichi Nakai (Irobe), Rie Miyazawa (Karu), Ryudo Uzaki (Yasubei Horibe), Ko Nishimura (Kira), Jun Hashizume (Asano)

Kon Ichikawa broke the international scene in the 1950s with his two anti-war films, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain. This soon put him into the upper ranks of Japanese directors such as Ozu and Kurosawa.  He remained active into the early 2000s when he was in his 90s.  He is also known for having directed the documentary Tokyo Olympiad on the Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 1964.

This film has an 18+ rating (the equivalent of an X rating) presumably because of the violence, but the film doesn’t wallow in violence like Sam Peckinpah’s films seem to, with one exception — the killing of Kira at the end of the film seemed intent in visualizing Lady MacBeth’s nightmare — “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.”  Other than that, there was little direct violence shown.

The film had some beautiful shots — the 47 Ronin racing in the snow to attack Kira’s castle was especially remarkable, as was a scene where Oishi was carving a bamboo whistle in the middle of a bamboo forest. But even the studio shots were very well composed.

This film begins as the samurai are making plans on how to take Kira in his new digs which have much greater defenses.  And there are flashbacks to the “incident” where Asano attacks Kira.  It is interesting as we get very little information in this version as to why Asano attacks Kira, and Kira himself seems quite puzzled by the reaction against him.  Though Kira is shown to be a coward, this version gives no adequate explanation for Asano’s attack on him.  In this film, we also get more of Kira’s defense preparations, made by one of his chamberlains, Irobe — for his performance as Kiichi Nakai won awards in Japan as best supporting actor of 1994.  Irobe seems an honorable man, wanting to do right by his lord, Kira, which makes the whole matter of the 47’s attack seem to need more justification than we get.  When Kira is confronted by Oishi at the end of the film, Kira seems still not to know why he is being attacked.

There is much more a sense of Oishi and Irobe’s cleverness in their preparations, like two chess players.  Oishi uses money to pay people to spread rumors about Kira in Edo.  We never learn what these rumors are, but the rumor campaign does weaken Kira’s position in the court and he is, in effect, let go.  We get the sense that Asano was not allowed to offer any defense, and that his retainers are returning the favor by spreading rumors about Kira, as rumors cannot be easily answered.  And Kira’s people make use of spies to learn as much as they can about Oishi and his plans.

In other accounts, Oishi is shown playing the drunk to put Kira’s people off the scent.  Here we get none of that.  He remains sober throughout, though he does fall for a young woman, Karu, who becomes his love interest (apparently genuine) after his wife goes away.  As the cover story that Oishi has given in to drunkenness is such a key element in other versions, its absence here seems peculiar.  Equally peculiar is Oishi’s attack on Kira.  In other versions, Kira is captured and given the choice of committing seppuku, but he cannot bring himself to do it.  Here, Oishi attacks him, runs him through, and then cuts off his head.  In fact, he attacks him as Kira seems on the point of revealing something about the “incident.”  Though it ultimately doesn’t matter why Asano attacked Kira, one would think that Oishi, who is so careful about the clan’s finances, would want to know, to settle the books.

The film ends with the death of Kira.  We get no victory parade, but a text scroll indicating what will happen from this point on.  One of the things I thought as I was watching this film was that the portrayal of Oishi here had something of Clint Eastwood’s stoic presence, and I later learned that Takakura has the nickname of “the Japanese Clint Eastwood.”

Silent (and short) Chushingura

Posted in Uncategorized on 6 July 2016 by bdnm

Chukon Giretsu — Jitsuroku Chushingura (Chushingura — Truth) (1928), dir. Shozo Makino.

Watched on Youtube.Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBf3ADtavpc to watch the film yourself.

I noticed that there were some versions of the story on Youtube.  One that intrigued me was a silent version done in 1928 — it is one of a few silent version — Japan was the last country to go to sound film (in 1936) because Japanese silent film houses employed benshi, men who read the titles and provided dialogue and commentary in the image portions of the film.  These benshi were unionized, and were very popular.  And as the sound quality of early sound films was often terrible, Japan held back, preferring to keep the benshi employed and the audiences happy.

Well, I was intrigued by this version because it had no subtitles.  In other words, all I was going to see were kanji titles and nothing to help me figure out the story.  So, first I decided to wait and look at the silent version without help of titles only after I had seen a few versions of the story, hoping that my familiarity would help me figure out what was going on.  And this particular version on Youtube had a recorded benshi providing the narration/commentary.  This was in Japanese, so it didn’t help me with the specifics of the story, but gave me some sense of what benshi added to the experience.

And I found I could follow the story, which sped right along:  we have the insults of Kira, and the attack by Asano, and Asano’s seppuku, and the reaction back at Asano’s castle in Ako (his wife and his brother horrified by what Asano has done to the clan).  It had large assembly of retainers called to decide their next action (with much animated back and forth between the two groups (fight v. surrender and follow the law).  It had Oishi’s pretended sink into drunkenness, even the game of blind man’s bluff he plays with the geisha girls that I had seen in the other films. And it had the attack (in the snow) of Kira’s castle, with the search lights (apparently they made lanterns out of something like deep kettle drums, coated with highly reflective material to serve as an earlier version of a floodlight) to find the hidden Kira in the castle.

I was amazed that I was able to figure out what as what only based on my familiarity with the story from other versions, as I had no written or spoken clue I could use.  Of course, at a little more than 1 hour, there was a lot to cover.  That short time was further shortened by extremely long title sequences.  Before we get our first image, we have about 5 minutes of text (some of it no doubt credits) over about a dozen title cards.  And then after a minute or so of visual, we get another minute or so of title cards.  Given that Western titlles are kept to a minimum, this came as something of a shock to me.

I was amused though by the titles of the characters when the characters were especially animated.  When Asano attacks Kira, the script is tilted on its side about 45 degrees and the carefully drawn titles get all crazy looking.  In addition, we have exclamation points, AND we have the benshi himself becoming shrill.  It was fun to watch and to listen to.  It was also fun to listen to the benshi do different voices, as in the debate over whether to fight or not — we get shrill voices pleading, and gruff voices dismissing the opposing views.  I had no idea what they were saying, but it was music to my ears.

 

Choo-choo Chushingura

Posted in Uncategorized on 6 July 2016 by bdnm

Chushingura (47 Samurai) (1962), dir. Hiroshi Inagaki, w/  Yuzo Kayama (Asano), Hiroshi Koizumi (Gengo), Tasuya Mihashi (Horibe), Chusha Ichikawa (Kira), Toshiro Mifune (Tararaboshi), Kenji Sahawa (Isogai), Hisaya Ito (Oishi)

Watched on DVD

This film, at 3 1/2 hours, is roughly the length of Mizoguchi’s two-film treatment of the story.  And it is broken into two parts, Blossom and Snow.  The first part of the film, which is about 2 hours long, is roughly equivalent to Mizoguchi’s first film, which runs less than 2 hours.  It covers the period from the hosting of the Imperial Envoys and Asano’s attack on Kira through the rejection of the appeal to restore the house under Lord Daigaku, Asano’s brother and the departure of Oishi’s wife and children, which leaves him free to launch the attack.  That attack, and its preparation take the last 1 1/2 hours of the film.

This film gives us a lot more detail than the other versions so far.  We learn that Kira already knows Asano, and that he is angry at Asano, not only for not bribing him as was the expected practice, but for not respecting his servants whom Kira sent to get information about how Asano had become so successful in harvesting salt.  The Shogun’s chamberlain is likewise surprised about Asano’s refusal to play ball, and instructs Kira to teach him a lesson.  Kira is quite a greedy and vain fellow and does not take Asano’s refusal to bribe him and flatter him well.  Though Kira is as repulsive here as in other versions, Asano’s intransigence here seems less like a virtue.  It’s commendable that he doesn’t want to engage in bribery, which runs counter to the samurai code.  It’s less understandable that Asano demonstrates his contempt for Kira, and then expects Kira to give him proper training in court etiquette.

Kira gives mixed messages to Asano, first telling him there is no need to change any of the tatami mats, and later, a day before the envoys are to arrive, informing him that such mats are unacceptable.  Kira apparently is willing to let the mats go, for a price, which Asano refuses to pay.  One of Asano’s retainers, Gengo, is able to get all the mat-makers in Edo to work through the night to make the 500 mats required.  Gengo also rises to the occasion in having two outfits ready for the formal ceremony, so that the master can wear the right one at the right time.

Kira keeps on insulting Asano until Asano explodes and attacks him.  Much is made of the blood on the tatami mats, and on the Shogun himself (the wounded Kira bleeds over the Shogun’s silk robes).  But the investigation is handled in such a way that Asano is not allowed an opportunity to explain his actions.  He refuses to admit temporary insanity, but when one judge presses him for an answer, the other forbids any further talk from Asano, and Asano’s seppuku is rushed forward.  The one judge is very much bothered by this, and makes his displeasure known to Oishi and the Asano clan.

Inagaki has some personal, even humorous touches, in the film.  We see that the Shogun’s pet dog has his own sedan chair, and that the Shogun, a dog lover, has posted directions that people are to “rescue strays,” and that people who harm dogs will be punished by death.  And when Gengo goes to the mat-makers, they state plainly that what he asks is impossible, but Gengo threatens to commit seppuku in their shop, and they all get to work.  When one of Asano’s retainers, a man who likes to drink, is needed to help with the making of mats (he knows how to do so), one of the samurai, Horibe, has to take his place in a drinking contest against Mufune’s Tararaboshi, a great big fellow with a big lance and a big appetite for drink.  Tararaboshi reappears later when Horibe has to beg off another drinking contest as they are getting ready to launch their attack.  It is unclear whether Tararaboshi will put in with Kira, who’s offered him money to become his bodyguard, or not.

The gathering of the ronin on the night of the attack is given a fair amount of screen time.  It is a long process.  When the evening starts (attack will commence at 4a), there are only 30 present;  one by one others come, but not before unnerving those who showed up on time.  One ronin is unable to show up because he has come down with pneumonia and is bedridden, but he tries to make it to the gathering before collapsing in the snow, while another cannot get away from his girl.

I appreciate Inagaki’s taking time to provide more details.  It helped me to get to know some of the different samurai better.  It is clear that some names are better known than others.  Even in Mizoguchi’s version, it is clear that certain of the 47 are more important than others, as only about 5 or 6 get named, but nothing further is told us.   We also get more of the public reaction in this film — Kira’s neighbors agree not to intervene during the attack, and instead to block any egress from Kira’s place into their houses;  the architect father of Omino is quite willing to let Isogai see his plans once he understands how they will be used.

The film does not end with the death of the samurai, but with them parading through the streets of Edo, and crossing a bridge on their way back to Ako where they will offer the head of Kira to their master before surrendering to the authorities to await sentence and death.  In other words, we do not see the death of the ronin, only their triumph.

 

 

Loyalty, thy name is Ronin

Posted in Uncategorized on 4 July 2016 by bdnm

The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chushingura) (1958) dir. Kunio Watanabe, w/ Kazuo Hasegawa (Oishi), Osamu Takizawa (Kira), Raizo Ichikawa (Asano)

This film was a lot more action-packed than Mizoguchi’s version of the story.  And we got much more of the backstory.  Except that this film didn’t get much play in the West, until the Keanu Reeves 47 Ronin sparked interest in the story and resulted in the release of other versions of the story from Japan (there are more than 80 film versions, supposedly), I would swear it was done for Western audiences.

We get much more information on Kira and Asano.  Asano was given the task of providing hospitality for imperial envoys coming to Edo (Tokyo).  As a rural lord, he had no real experience in court etiquette, and was assigned Kira, a more seasoned courtier, to help him.  Kira, though, hated Asano.  Other lords paid Kira bribes to get on his good side and get good advice. Asano hated that practice and refused to play, so Kira does what he can to sabotage Asano’s efforts.  Asano’s people, though, are able, mostly, to cover for any faux pas, which further infuriates Kira.  Still, Kira badmouths Asano’s efforts as that of a a “hick daimyo” whenever he can, until finally, Kira can stand it no longer and he attacks Kira, which breach of the peace requires him to commit hara-kiri.  He is willing to accept his punishment, but we learn (in this version) that public opinion is upset that Asano is singled out here.  The normal procedure is for both parties involved in such a disturbance must pay with their lives, but Kira is not punished.  It is made clear that Kira has some political juice, but that doesn’t keep the people from grumbling.

In addition, one of the judges overseeing the trial sees Asano’s nobility, and Kira’s duplicity.  He raises his concerns that both need to suffer the same punishment, but his concerns fall on deaf ears.

Here we get to see Asano’s seppuku, which is done openly in a garden (another insult, as he should be given some privacy here).  He composed a poem on his last day.  As we see the poem on the rice paper, we also hear a singer singing the words: “The wind carries away the cherry blossoms… yet I grieve more for the passing of spring.”

We get more of the intrigue involved in the revenge as well — Oishi and other of the ronin are tailed by people on Kira’s side to see what they might do, and they are attacked by them on occasion.  A woman, Rui, is sent as a spy to watch Oishi, who is playing a drunk to allay suspicions.  She comes to realize that Oishi is feigning, as there is a nobility about him his drunkenness cannot hide.  But she comes to feel more sympathy for Oishi and his cause than her boss and Kira.

The attack on Kira’s castle lasts about 20 min. of the film and is good action.  Of course, now so much of the battle scenes are choreographed fully, and so this appears a bit rough, but its roughness can be forgiven as probably being closer to what such a battle might look like.

This film ends immediately after the attack, when the Ronin parade through the streets of Edo with Kira’s head in a sack to the cheers of the crowds.  They are stopped at one bridge, and it looks like they may have to fight again, but the official guarding the bridge explains why this path is blocked and offers another route out of town (they are heading back to Ako to lay the head on their lord’s grave).  The film ends with them crossing the alternate bridge while heroic music plays.

This would lead you to think that, having done their mission, they are free to go.  That is not the case.  It does make for an heroic ending as they parade down the street.

At long last, two!

Posted in Uncategorized on 4 July 2016 by bdnm

47 Ronin, Part II (1942), dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, w. Chojuro Kawarasaki (Oishi), Kazutoyo Mimasu (Kira), Shotaro Ichikawa (Horibe), Mieko Takamine (Omino), Kanemon Nakamura (Sukeimon), Kunitaro Kawarazaki (Isogai)

When the Japanese government put out the word they wanted a patriotic film to boost morale during WWII, the task was given to Kenji Mizoguchi to make a film based on the story of the Loyal 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era.  Mizoguchi, rather than making an action film or at least a film similar to most war films that combine action of battles with a strong sense of camaraderie, and some romance — as the war is being fought ostensibly for the folks back home.  Mizoguchi did not make that film.  There is camaraderie, though we don’t see it as concentrated as we might expect until near the end of Part II, and there is some romance.  But there is little in the way of action.

This film sort of picks up where the last film left off.  I say sort of because the first film ended with a clear sense that the Asano house would not be restored, which gave Oishi and the other 46 a green light to proceed in their revenge mission against Kira.  Had the Asano house been restored under Asano’s brother, the justification for revenge would be absent, and would have muddied the waters.  When Part II begins, Oishi is still waiting to hear from the Shogun about the status of Asano’s house.  I suppose it helps to replay part of the story for an audience who is at least a year away from Part I, or who may not have seen Part I, but I found it a bit jarring.

This part has no more action than Part I — in fact it may have less.  The big event of Part II is the attack on Kira’s castle and the capture of Kira and his beheading, which follows his failure to commit seppuku.  In this film, the 47 get ready for their mission, though we haven’t seen much in the way of preparations (e.g. we are told after the fact that Isogai has been courting Omino to get at the plans of Kira’s castle [her father was the architect], but we never see the courting, or the plans), and we only find out about the success of the mission when word comes that there has been an attack and Kira has been beheaded.  In Greek tragedy this would be enough (the messenger’s speech would give us lots of detail), but in a movie, we expect to see rather than simply hear, and we don’t get much information on the attack, just that it was a success.

The film has its moments, though.  In the final hour of the film, the mission over, the 47 await judgment from the Shogun.  They fully expect that they will be ordered to commit hara-kiri, but they must wait for judgment.  They are not outlaws, though they have broken the law in attacking Kira.  They did so to avenge their lord, but are quite willing to pay the price of a noble death to uphold the rule of law.  While they are waiting, their host (they are held in a local lord’s castle as prisoner/guests) is not sure how to tell the samurai of their imminent death.  Then a messenger comes with a beautiful bouquet of flowers from Lady Asano.  This lets the host, and the samurai know that the verdict is in, and they will be expected to commit hara-kiri in the next few days.

The samurai are all quite happy to get the “message,” and they are all suitably impressed by the beautiful way that Lady Asano told them.  They spend their last night entertaining each other with music and dance, while Oishi arranges the flowers sent by Lady Asano.  That scene was beautifully shot with gentle camera movements and cuts.

On the day their sentence will be carried out, Omino comes to ask to see Isogai one last time.  Such a meeting will allow her to be considered Isogai’s wife, and not just a woman tricked by Isogai. The scene between the couple is also very well played — Mizoguchi was a master of “woman’s” films, and such an emotional farewell between a young couple was something he could do well.

We do not see the seppuku — we see the screened area in the garden where each of the samurai goes in turn (Oishi last, as he is the guy in charge, and is supposed to see the sentence carried out).  We hear each name called out in turn.  Strangely enough (SPOILER ALERT), we do see one death — we see Omino’s death — she commits hara-kiri, in part to steel Isogai to do likewise (there is some concern as to whether he’ll lose his never if he sees Omino).  And when Oishi hears his name called, and he gets up to head to the garden, the film ends.

The film was as low key, and shot in middle to long shot, just like Part I.  I have to say, though such shooting is not easy to watch (we are trained through movies and TV even more for close-ups and medium-shots — we are brought into the action).  Mizoguchi keeps us at arms’ length and it may be that this is why the film was not successful in Japan when it came out.  Still, I enjoyed watching the film much more than last time, and enjoyed Part II quite a bit more than Part I.