Pigeon’s Birds of Prey

How refreshing that the 1970s proved that those old masters of the hard-boiled flicks hadn’t slowed down a bit.  That their extension of a genre they virtually defined – now christened “neo-noir” – was alive and well and splattering thugs, dames and pushovers all over that R-rated asphalt.  Indeed, even today, I still relish revisiting late works of Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), Robert Aldrich (Hustle), Phil Karlson (Framed), and now, thanks to Olive Films/Bavaria Atelier GmbH (in association with CHRISAM Films) the long-awaited return of Sam Fuller’s marvelous 1972 wink at his malevolent cinematic past, the deliriously crazed DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET.

It’s been years since Olive first taunted us Fullerites with news that this bizarre masterpiece was headed for American Blu-Ray (at least since 2010), but, noiristas can exhale – at last, it’s here, and well worth the wait.  Not only is Sam’s semi-spoof restored to the director’s intended 127-minute running time (longer than the version I originally saw), but there’s a fascinating feature-length documentary by Robert Fischer (Return to Beethoven Street:  Sam Fuller in Germany) that would be worth purchasing on its own.

DEAD PIGEON‘s narrative is about as funky as “out there” cinema can get; in fact, the plot is downright kooky.  An American detective in Germany has been paid to infiltrate a gang of blackmailers who use beautiful women to seduce politicians.  The sleuth is portrayed by Glenn Corbett), yet another of the director’s “Sandy”s. Sandy’s client is the favored U.S. candidate for president whose rightwing opponents are out to get the politico ‘cause he’s “a goddamn socialist.”  Uh-oh.

The gang is a sophisticated operation run by Mensur, a smooth, suave Mabuse-esque fencing master (the great Anton Diffring, acknowledged in the documentary to be the best thesp in the pic, which is saying a lot in a cast that also includes Sieghardt Rupp, Alexander D’Arcy and, in a breathtaking cameo, Stephane Audran).  Mensur’s style reflects Mabuse’s in so many ways, specifically his obsessive high-tech (for the 1970s) methods of tracking, stalking and invading his intended victim’s privacy (he also utilizes video conferencing via large flat screens in his posh office).  But there’s another Lang connection, a namesake one – his nummer eins girl and ultimate femme fatale, Christa Lang (Fuller’s real-life wife and the most dangerous delectable human strudel since Josef von Sternberg unleashed Marlene Dietrich’s X-27 in Dishonored; toss in Lola Lola and Shanghai Lily by way of the Manson family and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the trouble awaiting any dumb-ass male).

Christa, whose name in the movie is also Christa, is immediately dispatched to “meet cute” with Sandy, who is doing the same from his end.  Their finesse at treachery and penchant for violence at once ignites a spark of genuine attraction.  Of course, neither can trust each other, and each does have a job to do.  And so it goes.

The movie’s history, originally conceived as an episode for Tatort, a long-running German crime series (quite possibly the world’s longest running TV show, still broadcasting after nearly fifty years), is a textbook of filmmaking deception in and of itself.  Sam, as Fischer’s doc reveals, was unable to secure the kind of projects he wanted in the States, and began talks with the producers of the famed Deutsche Fernsehsendung.  Once agreed, Fuller relegated Kressin, the show’s lead character (Rupp), to a minor background supporting player, moved in Corbett and basically made a bogus installment of Tatort, but a 100% authentic Sam Fuller picture (the producers, interviewed by Fischer, laugh it off at how they were so seamlessly bamboozled, not knowing what to make of Sam’s English-language final cut).

The parallels between Diffring’s organization and  Rupp’s agency are striking, as are the tactics used by Christa and Sandy.  The latter even hires a sleazy sometimes pornographer (actor/director/film historian Hans C. Blumenberg) to help frame dupes by placing their heads on incriminating hooker action candids (in essence the 1972 version of Photoshop, another nod to technology, albeit not as refined as Diffring’s).  There’s a wonderful dual sequence of Christa/Corbett complaining about their plight with one another to Diffring/Rupp (essentially whining “bastard”/ “bitch” to their uninterested, but amused, superiors).

Of course, there are some trademark Fuller set pieces, including a chase and shootout in a maternity ward (featuring Diffring’s key assassin, a ruthless psychopath with comical moniker of Charlie Umlaut, played with panache by Eric P. Caspar).  This unorthodox gunplay is Sam’s idea of being wacky, culminating with Fuller paying homage to himself when Umlaut gets chin-bumped down a flight of stairs, a la Richard Kiley in Pickup on South Street.

The dialog, too, is often inspired – with Christa getting the best lines (to verbally accentuate her curves).  As Corbett attempts to be gentlemanly with the seductress, she suspiciously (and beautifully) delivers a killer bon mot response:  “The last time a man held a door open for me, we were going 60 miles per hour!”  When the pair finally succumbs to what Cole Porter famously pegged as the “urge to merge,” Corbett ponders if this is at last the real thing.  Christa heads him off at the pass:  “Everybody likes everybody when they kiss,” she snarkily replies.

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET also answers an age-old movie question that has bothered me ever since I saw my first Bijou duel.  When someone loses their blade, why don’t they go hog wild and do a kitchen sink retaliation at their opponent?  Corbett gets to do just that in an epic fight with Diffring, with startling and satisfying results.

I first saw DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET at a special screening in 1973 at Fabiano Canosa’s legendary First Avenue Screening Room. Ric Menello and I couldn’t wait to get there and were appropriately dazzled by the results, even though the version we saw was around 100 minutes, nearly a half-hour shorter than the Olive Blu-Ray.  For more than forty years, two sequences remained embedded in my admittedly demented mind:  a scene where Corbett follows Christa into a cinema showing a revival of Hawks’ Rio Bravo (with the Duke joyously dubbed in German), and a mountaintop castle picnic between Christa and Corbett.  Proud to say that both these segments hold up AND are integral to the scenario.  In the movie theater episode, Corbett is so jubilantly enthralled by seeing Wayne that he almost loses sight of the reason he came (and nearly loses Christa, who ducks out).  In the second bit, the picnic/romantic date, Corbett clumsily attempts to woo Christa with some “sweet nothings” love talk; while many a man would talk of his would-be conquest’s soft skin, limpid peepers, tempting lips, Corbett instead offers how much he admires “the little circles under your eyes.”  Christa smashes his coy charm with a loud and happy “They’re BAGS!”  Shelley couldn’t have written it better (and I mean Shelley Winters).

The sumptuous locations of DEAD PIGEON, of course, are part of the movie’s plot (and include a climactic festival and, naturally, some action on the title’s mean strasse.  The lush photography by Jerzy Lipman (with some 16MM handheld inserts by Fuller) looks swell on this meticulously restored Blu-Ray.  The audio occasionally comes off as slightly muffled, but it’s in no way annoying or irritating enough to harm the enjoyment of this freewheeling excursion into movie lunacy (beginning with the daft credits, where cast and crew members appear in mostly clownish attire).

I spoke briefly with Christa Fuller over the phone, and she, as usual, served up some enticing ancillary tidbits about the pic.  “Jerzy Lipman, the d.p., was told in no uncertain terms by Roman Polanski [Lipman was the cinematographer on Polanski’s Knife in the Water] to ask no questions and to do whatever Sam Fuller says.”  When I inquired as to any personal memories of the shoot, she replied, “I remember it was so bitterly cold during the filming, but it was a totally pleasant experience.  Sam, you know, adored the New Wave, and DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, I believe, was his affectionate wink to that movement and to the filmmakers.  By the way, I think I’m very funny in the film, don’t you?”  Hell, yeah, Christa!

As indicated, the documentary is quintessential viewing, offering not only a comprehensive look regarding DEAD PIGEON‘s pre-production, shooting, post-production fate and resurrection, but also serving as an authoritative visual guide on Sam Fuller and his overall career.  With clips, sidebar interviews (including Lang, Caspar, Blumenberg and Wim Wenders), on-location home movies, and even music by CAN (the rock band who composed DEAD PIGEON‘s original score) Return to Beethoven Street is an exhaustive, thoroughly entertaining and frequently rollicking ride with one of motion picture’s true mavericks (ideally complemented by Samantha Fuller’s superb feature-length work on her father, A Fuller Life, available at http://chrisamfilms.com/).  Simply put, Olive Films’ DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET is one of the best Blu-Rays of the year.

Oh, and as for Christa and Corbett, hey – it’s a Sam Fuller movie, fill in the blanks (except, Spoiler Alert, they rarely use blanks).

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Color. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/ Bavaria Atelier GmbH (in association with CHRISAM Films).  CAT # OF1189.  SRP:  $29.95.

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If First You Don’t Secede…

When one thinks of the great western directors, one doesn’t immediately lasso onto Samuel Fuller.  Yet, before penning this piece, my mind drifted to the likes of the terrific B-item I Shot Jesse James (1949),  1957’s Forty Guns (one of my all-time Fuller faves), a marvelous 1962 Virginian episode (Sam’s adaptation of Owen Wister’s novel It Tolls for Thee, guest starring Lee Marvin), and this vastly underrated 1957 Technicolor jaw-dropper, the ultra-modern ideological RUN OF THE ARROW, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.

The picture was one of the last gasps from RKO (I believe it was released in the summer of 1957, by Universal-International, which, along with Warner Bros., bought up completed product from the Howard Hughes’ defunct studio).  Ironically, it opens during the last gasp of the War Between the States (Palm Sunday, 1865).  Angry, borderline lunatic Reb infantryman O’Meara fires the final shot of the war, wounding a Union officer.  Because the war ends that day, a Dixie doc (Carleton Young) removes the bullet and saves the Yankee, as a dour O’Meara watches the signing of the peace pact at Appomattox.

But the South shall rise again, and no one is more risible than O’Meara (a double-take worthy Rod Steiger) and his fellow crackers (who sing snarky songs about hating the Constitution).  O’Meara, rather than adhere to Union rules (a double meaning, if ever there was one), eschews his citizenship and leaves America for the western territories (but not before being gifted with the removed and now refurbished lead slug, a keepsake which he wears around his neck).

This is the beginning of one of the most bizarre westerns ever conceived, a brilliant concoction of social commentary, hypocrisy and violent America that could only have flowed from the creative juices of writer-director Fuller.

The title of the movie stems from an ordeal that O’Meara and an aged Sioux scout must endure – a sort of precursor to a similar torture bestowed upon Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey nearly a decade later.  An arrow is fired, and, stripped barefoot, the runners must walk to its mark – then high-tail for their lives (until O’Meara, no one has ever survived).  As an asterisk to this barbarism: anyone who interrupts the “event” is put to death.

O’Meara’s renouncement of his Americanism is scoffed at by the wily Sioux (a monumental performance by the heavily made-up Jay C. Flippen), who dubs him Johnny Sore Loser.  O’Meara’s a quick study, and is determined to become a Sioux, mastering the language and cultural requirements (including killing Americans).  It’s another wonderful touch that Fuller simply has the exiled southerner converse with his new Native American family in perfect English (to demonstrate how he has picked up their tongue), no broken pigeon “heap big trouble” Tonto talk.

Aside from the movie’s key Sioux characters, all the other Indian roles are played by actual Native Americans, and with rarely depicted (for a 1950s western), but deserved dignity.  Flippen and the chief of the tribe, a wise and intuitively-savvy Charles Bronson, are among the most admirable humans in the movie.  Steiger wonders why Flippen never became chief; his answer is a corker (“I could have been a Sioux chief, but I can’t stand politics!”).  Yellow Moccasin, a gorgeous Sioux woman (Sarita Montiel) nurses O’Meara back to health from the run’s brutal aftermath, and they marry.  Montiel is a formidable presence, exuding beauty and intelligence (and dubbing, from rising starlet Angie Dickinson, when suits tagged Montiel’s thick Spanish accent as indecipherable.  Personally, I had no trouble understanding her in Vera Cruz, made three years earlier, but, then again, no one else has an accent save Steiger – a Scarlett O’Hara drawl mixed with an Irish brogue).

The movie might well have ended here, but this is a Sam Fuller epic, and narratives rarely end sewn up…or well. The increasing arrival of Americans (“crawling, stinking blue-bellies,” to coin an indicative O’Meara-esque snarling assessment) brings a mixed bag of humanity:  Clark, a progressive officer in charge (Brian Keith) and O’Meara’s Union bigoted doppelganger, Driscoll (Ralph Meeker) – the final Pirandello touch being that he’s the “dawg” O’Meara shot at the end of the Civil War.

In one of RUN‘s most remarkable sequences, O’Meara and Clark sit and have a cordial discussion (O’Meara has been chosen by both Americans and Sioux as a scout for newly designated territorial boundaries, which Driscoll plans to violate).  Keith’s natural ability for underplaying is perfectly contrasted with Steiger’s penchant for going over the top.  In fact, I must say that Fuller wondrously keeps the actor’s often uncontrollable Steiger-counter from extending beyond required outbursts (say the title of the movie, and punctuate “arrow” as if it were two words to get what I mean).  Keith scores a coup when Steiger calmly matter-of-factly cites the Americans’ wanton destruction of the South as an attack on a “free white Christian” society.  This amuses Keith, who shakes his head at Steiger arrogance and total obliviousness to his racism (and who likewise misses the irony of his desire to reinvent himself as a Sioux).  That said, O’Meara does volley back a barbed bon mot when Clark condescendingly explains a historical literary point to the expat (“We did have books…in the South,” he sneers).

A harrowing quicksand sidebar, plus an undeniably superb (if not sadistic, and, what else?, ironic) climax cap this magnificently shot (Joseph Biroc) drama to its unresolved close (the final credit being “The End of this Story Can Only be Written by YOU!,” a task that we have miserably failed to chart positively).

RUN OF THE ARROW should be a primer for great filmmaking, but, then again, any Fuller picture can lay claim to that goal.  Aside from the writing, directing, photography and cast (which also includes Olive Carey, Chucks Roberson and Hayward, Frank de Kova, Tim McCoy and Kermit Maynard), there is a sumptuous score by Victor Young (one of his last, his final work being Fuller’s China Gate, released the following year).  In addition, Ben Chapman did a tremendous job assistant director, as did editor Gene Fowler, Jr.

It’s interesting to ponder the aftereffects of RUN OF THE ARROW, as the irony element stuck with it, way past post-production and release.  Bugged by RKO moguls about casting Steiger as the lead in a western, Fuller replied that the burly actor was just what he wanted, that he was always an outcast – that he uncomfortably never fits in, and especially looked ungainly on a horse (although he’s no match for Joan Collins in The Bravados).  Steiger himself notoriously dissed the movie, similarly to Burt Reynolds’ knocking Navajo Joe.  In an infamous late-1960s interview, Steiger remarked that when fans tell him that they saw one of his movies on TV, “you hope it’s The Pawnbroker, but it’s always RUN OF THE AR – ROWWW!” (see what I mean?).  Truth be told, post-In the Heat of the Night (W.C. Fields and Me, The Kindred, Portrait of a Hitman, American Gothic, The Specialist, Captain Nuke and the Bomber Boys, Modern Vampires, Poolhall Junkies, etc.), Steiger should have recanted that comment with a vengeance until his dying day.  Rod, if you’re reading this now wherever you are, it’s one of the best movies of your career.

The Warner Archive DVD-R of RUN OF THE ARROW faithfully restores the picture’s 1.78:1 aspect ratio via a generally decent, crisp anamorphic transfer.  The colors are thickly saturated, and look okay (at times even spectacular, especially the Technicolor crimson), although the opticals tend to go a bit hinky (but these are only momentary transitions).  The mono audio is strong and bijou-convincing, most notably impressive when played through a soundbar (which is what I did).

Bottom line, anyone looking for a unique, fascinating take on the western needs sprint no farther than RUN OF THE ARROW, another engrossing, recommended without reservation (no pun) Sam Fuller experience.

RUN OF THE ARROW.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio.  Warner Archive Collection.  Made-to-order DVD-R.  CAT # 1000537450SRP: $21.99.

Available exclusively through The Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

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Those Who Can’t, Kill

In the spaghetti western “Sergio” sweepstakes, novices are quick to always cite Leone as the king of the (boot) hill.  This is mostly because they are unaware of the gaggle of other Sergios lying in wait, the dual rivals of Leone (Sollima, Corbucci).  These men are not to be trifled with, as all have created formidable horse operas (with the accent on opera) that often equal and (for many hardcore genre fans) even best the maestro of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West.  Chief among this later claim is Sergio Sollima’s superb 1967 entry FACE TO FACE (aka Faccia a Faccia), now, finally, available in an official release – on Blu-Ray, no less – from the groovy folks at Kino Studio Classics.

FACE TO FACE has all the elements necessary for the success of a spaghetti western (including what the B-western disgruntled denizens from the underrated 1985 comedy Rustler’s Rhapsody correctly identified as “better clothes and music”).  But it goes miles further into the sunset than a mere grand entertainment.  FACE TO FACE is a complex Pirandello-esque saga, rife with political overtones of the 1960s (and earlier) to match each gunshot and large-scale action sequence.

What keeps this epic so engrossing is the terrific cast, headed by three icons of the genre: Gian Maria Volonte, Tomas Milian and William Berger.  While all are excellent, and, indeed Volonte captured the lion’s share of the reviews, it is (for me) Milian’s picture – possibly his finest performance.

This picture opens in late 19th-century Boston, where a revered professor Brad Fletcher(Volonte), plagued by tuberculosis, is being forced to resign.  Unless he fills his lungs with the arid, dry air of the West, his survival odds are nil.  The dean of the school, a smug bully autocrat of the Erich Maria Remarque variety, backhand compliments him out the door with, “Each man chooses his own part in history”).  Fletcher, who lacks the stamina to tell the bastard off, is equally at sea when confronted with the cold beauty whom he loves, but cannot muster the courage to talk to; she simply sneers at his awkwardness.  Inadvertently, these two are fanning the flames of a human tinderbox.  End of Act One.

Act Two.  Fletcher is recovering nicely, baking in the sun, enjoying the stunning scenery and his beloved books.  This sagebrush paradise is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a posse and their prisoner, the notorious bandit leader Solomon Beauregard Bennett (Milian).  Seeing their horrific treatment of their captive, Fletcher begs to give the parched felon some water along with a tincture of mercy.  They reluctantly agree and Bennett, viewing kindness as weakness, uses the opportunity to murder his captors and escape with Fletcher as his hostage.

Wounded in his flight, Bennett is cared for by Fletcher.  Bennett also becomes fascinated with Fletcher’s knowledge, and his New England life.  Tracked by Charley Siringo (Berger), who wants to help Beauregard recruit a new gang, Bennett quickly falls back into his old ways and, now piqued by the perks of mercy, decides to escort Fletcher back to a railway station where the teacher can arrange his return to Massachusetts.

But the violence and freedom of the Darwinian-based “survival of the fittest” mantra have piqued something in Fletcher as well.  He eschews civilization and begs to join the gang, much to Bennett’s shock.

The beautiful women of the camp ultimately unleash the beast long harboring in this closet sociopath; Fletcher brutally rapes a girl he desires.  Offering up a series of strategies based on ancient Greek and Roman tacticians, Fletcher (his misogyny now melding with full-blown sadism), seamlessly takes over the gang, leaving nothing blocking his lust for power, including the murder of children.

In true Devil’s Disciple form, Bennett, outraged by the formerly gentle teacher’s masochism, renounces violence and gradually fades into the background, taken prisoner during a raid.  An old ally (the always welcome Aldo Sambrell), also a prisoner, turns out to be a traitor, as does Siringo, actually a Pinkerton agent, assigned to infiltrate and destroy the Bennett Gang.

In a biblical parable, a pilgrimage into the desert sets the stage for the final act, comprising an inventive twist on the classic showdown.

I can’t praise this movie highly enough.  It’s not only one of the top spaghetti westerns ever made (rated by a poll as one of the Ten Best), it’s easily one of the 1960s greatest westerns.

The acting and terrific photography (in Technicolor and TechniScope by Raphael Pacheco) encompasses a visual feast and a primer for screen acting (Milan uses his body and eyes rather than dialog to convey his amazing transformation).  Add sound to the mix, via a brilliant score by (who else?) Ennio Morricone; it’s one of his best too (and think about that!).

This leaves us with the direction and writing, both due to the inspired creativity of Sergio Sollima.  Sollima, who cowrote the screenplay with Sergio Donati, doesn’t miss a trick.  FACE TO FACE is the last word on the adage, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s also a thinly veiled comment on the rise of fascism, as valid a cinematic statement on the subject as Bertolucci’s 1900.  That said, don’t let the deep-dish stuff scare you off.  FACE TO FACE is a rousing, thrilling adventure.  Sollima’s direction is always notches above the genre’s standard of excellence.  One of his other two entries, The Big Gundown, is, likewise, a magnificent example of how unique the spaghetti western can be.  While many rate 1966’s Gundown (also with Milian) as his masterpiece, FACE TO FACE must be given serious consideration, especially now in lieu of this wonderful Blu-Ray.

Kino’s 35mm transfer is all that spaghetti western fans could ask for and more.  The platter includes the truncated American version (93 minutes), as well as the full-length Italian cut (112 minutes, w/English subtitles).  Of course, the elongated edition offers a more logical progression into the lead’s loathsome transformation and his costar’s regeneration (albeit in a little rougher physical shape).  And it’s fantastic to have them both available for comparison.  For years, I had a bootleg DVD, copped from an intermediary Japanese print (running 107 minutes), which I spun endlessly.  Kino has even enclosed the trailers for FACE TO FACE and their other recent spaghetti western release, Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (which I also love).

I had mentioned the Devil’s Disciple connection earlier, and, through the years, had heard that this movie was actually based upon a true incident; if so, it’s a lesson in American history that apparently will never be learned.  Certainly, Charley Siringo was a real character, who did work for Pinkerton in exactly the way depicted in this movie.  So, who knows?

To say that this title is one of my favorite Blu-Ray releases of the year (or any year) would be an understatement. In pure spaghetti western (as well as anatomical) terms, FACE TO FACE is head and shoulders above the competition.

FACE TO FACE.  Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition.  2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # K1710.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Stacked Deck

For hard-boiled journalist turned master filmmaker Sam Fuller, the Chicago Manual of Style has a double meaning.  Sure, that tabloid in-your-gut stiletto-sharp prose hits its mark, but the city’s history of gangland violence plays an equal part in the Fuller cinema legacy.  And Tokyo (with a side excursion to Yokohama), Chicago Style never had a truer meaning than in the director-writer’s magnificent 1955 contradictory (it’s a color-noir) HOUSE OF BAMBOO, now on limited edition from the folks at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

I’ve always loved this movie, and, like so many of the great ones, it just seems to get better with each viewing.  The story, as written by Harry Kleiner (with iconic Fuller additional dialog: “He sure knew how to die,” “A strait-jacket would fit you just right.”), concerns a band of dishonorably discharged American GIs stationed in Japan who form a criminal cartel that rivals Capone’s Windy City mob.  When their crime wave escalates to knocking over a train carrying U.S. military munitions, the Army joins forces with the Japanese police to stop them.  It’s the how, why, where, what and when – you know, the newspaperman’s mantra guideline – that unravels the twisty narrative’s spidery cobweb of fear and deceit with sledgehammer tabloid fashion as the law enforcement factions plant a mole within the already paranoid gang’s top echelon.

Evil, the movie’s inside out moral tells us, is the root of all money – and, thus, its own undoing.  The gang’s motto is the tried and true “take no prisoners.”  Except they’ve freshened it up a bit; not only do they remove all pursuers, but, should one of their own go down, it’s a bullet in dead-men-tell-no-tales head.  This is a non-negotiable edict issued and enforced by the group’s corporate-minded psychopathic leader, Sandy, aka the wonderful Robert Ryan, one of the most memorable of Fuller’s many favorite-monikered Sandys, (to say nothing of Griffs, and there’s one of those too).

But their latest collateral damage sacrifice is clinging to life and semi-consciously reveals that there’s a secret woman who rocks his world, and that his best friend, Eddie Spanier (now doing time in the States), is due to join him upon his release.  Eddie, a vicious thug, arrives and immediately begins horning in on Sandy’s pachinko protection racket sideline.  Spanier’s raw propensity for blood and greed ingratiates him into Ryan’s favor, who risks offering him a top spot in the mob.  Of course, the real Eddie is under wraps in America; this Eddie is special agent Robert Stack, who infiltrates the malicious band as well as his dead “pal’s” squeeze (actually the gunman’s gorgeous Japanese wife), Mariko.  And that’s merely the beginning to this crazed, nightmarish descent into 1950s noirland.

There’s so much to talk about when seriously discussing the complex HOUSE OF BAMBOO, but I’m savvy enough to realize that time and space is of the essence, so I’ll stick to the basics.  First off, the cast.  Each selected actor and actress is letter perfect, although, ironically, Stack wasn’t the first choice.  Fuller insisted that the entire picture be shot on-location throughout the streets of Japan’s largest cities via hidden cameras.  Since the Fifties began, the indie star profit participation programs (where tax incentives were contingent upon highly-paid talent spending a good deal of the year outside the United States), Fox (and other studios) heavily promoted exotic locales for their A-product.  This was a win/win, as it also provided a scenic backdrop for the new widescreen processes.  CinemaScope was as important a selling point as a Clark Gable or Cary Grant or Susan Hayward.  Unquestionably, HOUSE OF BAMBOO was Fuller’s most extravagant and elaborate project to date, and, originally, it was announced that Gary Cooper (already taking advantage of the expat tax perks, a la Garden of Evil, Blowing Wild, Vera Cruz and Return to Paradise) would be playing Eddie.  Alas, test shots of the tall, gaunt actor strolling through the highways and byways of Tokyo aroused the American-movie-mad Japanese citizenry, who mobbed the star within seconds of the hidden cam’s rolling.  It was decided that Victor Mature would be a suitable replacement, but, he similarly, was too recognizable (Samson and Delilah and The Robe had been massive hits in Japan).  Next up was Stack, who fit the bill handily (his international fame in The Untouchables being four years away, and The High and the Mighty had yet to be released in the Far East territories).  This boosted second lead Robert Ryan up to star billing.  Ryan, of course, is terrific as usual – becoming a victim of his own mania.  As Sandy, he disregards his own rules by rescuing a wounded Eddie.  This doubly serves to explain his rabid treatment of Mariko, who has entered Stack’s life; Sandy’s misogyny and unusual compadre compassion is nothing less than his falling in love with Stack’s character, similar to Richard Boone’s attraction to Randolph Scott in Boetticher’s The Tall T.  Transcending the interracial romance, it daringly becomes BAMBOO‘s cloaked taboo.

Then there’s the beguiling casting of the sensuously beautiful Shirley Yamaguchi, whose bio is far more fascinating than any character she ever played:  WWII Rising Sun propaganda cinema queen, accused Chinese double-agent traitor, celebrated singer (heralded as the Judy Garland of Japan), one-time wife of famed artist Isamu Noguchi, American movie star and, last (but definitely not least), Japanese right-wing pundit and politician. Kuso haii, Shirl!  For the actress’s scores of admirers, Yamaguchi’s come-hither wet look, as she alights from a communal bath wrapped only in a towel, remains a key poster graphic, indeed one of the most overtly sexual American movie promotional images of the 1950s.  Eat your heart out, Ann Coulter (on the dubious premise that you have one).

The rest of Ryan’s gang is certainly worth mentioning (Biff Elliott and Robert Quarry), but particularly DeForrest Kelley (slimily Iago-esque) and, in his Fox contract specialty of Hot Head Third Male Lead Who Always Gets Killed (Pony Solider, Garden of Evil, The Tall Men, No Down Payment), Cameron Mitchell.  My fave person of interest in this rogue’s gallery is the brief, yet potent appearance by Harry Carey, Jr., as Ryan’s traveling weapons supplier, essentially a precursor to Steven Prince’s role in Taxi Driver.  Aside from fire power, he also delivers my favorite line in the picture.  Proudly exhibiting his formidable stolen Army wares from a bulging satchel, a cynical Stack sneers, “You must know the ordinance sergeant.”  To which Dobe snarls back, “I AM the ordinance sergeant.”  Yes!

The “good guy” side ain’t chopped liver either.  In a rare positive role, Brad Dexter nails the honest (but kinda thick) military official, while Sessue Hayakawa (dubbed by actor Richard Loo), two years from making an American comeback (in Bridge on the River Kwai) from his silent screen leading man days, is believably calculating as the police Inspector Kito.  And Fuller himself appears as a Japanese policeman!

As indicated earlier, the locations in CinemaScope comprised a major attraction of big-budgeted movies of the era, and HOUSE OF BAMBOO is no exception.  In Fuller’s gifted hands, the spectacular compositions are not merely FitzPatrick Travel Talk rectangular-framed background wallpaper, but play an integral part of the scenario.  Tokyo’s teeming asphalt passages during a planned robbery’s execution are breathtaking, but not as much as perhaps the most amazing, jaw-dropping location in any movie (certainly a noir) – a tense, suspenseful chase and shootout in a sprawling amusement park, built entirely atop the city’s Matsuma department-store skyscraper.  Of course the photography must be mentioned and the various set pieces are superbly staged by Fuller and the great d.p. Joe MacDonald.  The soundtrack, likewise, must be praised; I greatly admire the score by Leigh Harline, specifically the incredibly beauteous intimate theme that audibly captures the growing relationship between Stack and Yamaguchi.

I asked Sam’s widow, actress/producer/writer Christa (Lang) Fuller, if she had any interesting background info on this movie, and, through an email, provided a couple of nuggets that I felt worthy of mentioning.  Not surprisingly (as they were both adhered to the same political ideology), Fuller and Ryan bonded during the filming of BAMBOO.  For years, they seriously discussed forming a production company, a dream that sadly ended when Ryan was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  In a more humorous vein, Christa revealed an incident involving Stack.  “Robert Stack almost got killed by [a] mob during the shooting, because Sam did not tell him that the crowd was not informed about a film being shot and [they] threw themselves on him when [paid extras began to shout] ‘THIEF.’  Stack forgave Sam though because he met his lovely wife Rosemary through him…”

Christa also suggested that interested Fuller fans check out A Fuller Life, a marvelous personal yet comprehensive chronicle of the artist’s career and achievements by their daughter Samantha (http://chrisamfilms.com).  To say that I strongly second that suggestion is an understatement.  The documentary is a quintessential companion piece to the director’s fantastic autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (a volume recommended without reservation, and one that contains an entire chapter on HOUSE OF BAMBOO).

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of HOUSE OF BAMBOO is a stunner.  If one had previously purchased the 2005 Fox DVD, they are probably saying, “Hey, this looked pretty good.  Why switch?”  True enough, but, like all excellent Blu-Rays, this master goes one better, more bang for your buck (and there are lots of bangs).  The colors pop just a little bit more to make a difference, and are accentuated by the vastly clearer imagery (in 2.55:1, as opposed to the usual CinemaScope 2.35, narrower to account for the original release’s stereophonic mag track).  The sound, re-mixed from the 1955 stereo elements, in 5.1 DTS-HD, is movie-theater dynamic (with Harline’s aforementioned score available as an IST).  To sweeten the pot, Twilight Time has not only included the DVD optional commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, but has added a new alternative audio supplement featuring Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman.  There’s also related Fox Movietone newsreels and the theatrical trailer.  Remember, this is a limited edition, so, noiristas, when this is gone – it’s sayonara.  Go Sandy, my fellow movie addicts, and take no prisoners!

HOUSE OF BAMBOO.  Color.  Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition] 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  CAT # TWILIGHT165-BR.  SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000, available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com) and www.twilighttimemovies.com

HOUSEBAMBOO_COVER

 

Crème de la femme

Growing up in a Washington Heights apartment with three strong women pretty much made the emergence of the Women’s Lib movement a no-brainer.  I had been coached on all the key tenets of feminism most of my life, not only through my mom, grandmother and sister, but from an extremely liberal father.  Three out of these four folks also had been blessed with the excessive humor gene, so, early on, I learned that if one truly wanted to make a point amongst the throngs of the unwashed, do it with wit – or, at the very least, with a modicum of entertainment.

Flash-forward to receiving a press release from Glitterati Incorporated, a publishing house specializing in the dying genre of beautifully produced coffee-table books:  “In chaotically stunning portraits, HER [by photographer Marjorie Salvaterra] captures the inner struggles of every woman.  The stunning black-and-white images truly allows rage, encourages body acceptance, explores creativity, and essentially breaks the facade of female perfection and provides insights into the pressures that women face every day.”  YIKES.  Don’t know about women, but I was starting to feel pressure, the kind when one’s windpipe slowly closes before everything goes dark.

Admirable as this might be to many, HER (subtitled Meditations on Being Female), sure didn’t sound like my cup of reviewing tea.  I wanted to immediately contact the publishers, enclosing the link to my last piece, a dichotomy on the pleasures of Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite.  But instead I bravely scrolled down and clicked open the enclosed sample images.

And, at once, my demeanor changed.   In fact, I burst out laughing.  The first visual (entitled Him) was the featured image chosen for this review (see above), the ultimate comment on every bad, dull, boring and “two fingers down the throat” relationship.  The subsequent shots were equally fetching, and, as quick as my anxious digits could hit reply, I contacted the Glitterati rep, instructing her to send me a copy ASAP.  The rest is HERstory.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover; that’s doubly true for a press release.  While awaiting the arrival of this wise tome, I decided to research its author.

Marjorie Salvaterra, I was delighted to learn (although it’s obvious from viewing her work), is an avid movie buff.  Actually, her start as a photographer began during a stint on motion picture location in Morocco.  I would love to know more about this, and, should the opportunity arise, will pursue the specifics of this adventure.

Not surprisingly, Salvaterra’s unique eye soon caught the more savvy members of various museum directors, who championed her art.  In her pseudo-snarky intro, she admits that “When I first began this project, I assumed most people would think I had lost my mind.”  As if that’s a bad thing!

Again, not surprisingly, many of the compositions reflect classic cinema, especially Fellini, ca. the La Dolce Vita/8 ½  era.  But, whether she’s aware of it or not, Salvaterra has also touched (albeit peripherally) upon the graphic offerings of other Italian filmmakers, including Dario Argento (Old Venice, She Goes On and On and On, You Can Pray or You Can Worry could have been lifted out of Suspira and Inferno) and even George Romero (Lesson in Realism resembles the female zombie answer to Lillith Fair).  But it don’t stop there, my fellow cineastes.  Push (at least to me) recalls a revisionist approach to Keaton’s Seven Chances and The Inevitable brings to mind the most famous image from Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer.

But let your taste be your own guide; throughout the 144 lavish glossy pages are 75 of Salvaterra’s prime addictive creations (some accessible via deluxe foldouts), each boldly, merrily skipping along the Plath to inspired insanity.

Some of my favorites are included below, and comprise Sheila’s Leap of Faith, wherein the author’s model of choice dances with glee through a tsunami of Jacqueline Susann dolls; Sheila’s shielding herself with an umbrella at last brilliantly draws the fine line between Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.  Sheila Goes to Market fastidiously captures the housewife grocery experience in all its Stepford glory (and in early/mid-1960s garb).  And Mother Two chronicles that undeniable special bond between mater and daughter.

Okay, see what I mean?  I love this book.  I kinda wish that there was a 2017 HER calendar in the works; however, until then, this smart and in-your-face funny volume will heartily suffice.  And now that we actually have a coffee table at Manse Neuhaus, that’s exactly where HER shall reside.

HER.  144 pages.  8 15/16 x 11 7/8.  Hardcover.  75 black-and-white photographs.  Glitterati Incorporated.  ISBN: 978-1-943876-10-5.  $50.