Favorite Films: The Seven Samurai (1954)

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in the Final Battle with the Brigands

From the first time I saw the film in college, I have regarded Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as the greatest action film ever made. It had one thing that action films rarely have: An amazing clarity so that you as the viewer knew exactly what was happening, where, and with whom. In Hollywood, action has become synonymous with CGI animation which actually has the opposite effect, blurring the actions and the outcomes and papering it over with loud noises.

The action of The Seven Samurai is simple enough: Seven ronin (i.e., masterless samurai) agree to serve as low-paid mercenaries to protect a village of farmers against a band of mounted brigands who periodically raid to steal as much of the harvest as they can. These brigands also have several guns, which were imported by Portuguese traders around the 16th and 17th centuries but disdained by the samurai. The samurai are outnumbered approximately forty to seven. In the end, the samurai and their villager auxiliaries slaughter the bandits, losing four of their men in the fight.

Although The Seven Samurai runs well over three hours, it seems only half that long. Kurosawa makes everything so crystal clear that we viewers almost feel as if we were part of the action. There are crude maps of the village, showing where the bandits are likely to attack; a symbol for each bandit, crossed out when he is killed; and the great acting of Takashi Shimura as the leader of the samurai, who patiently explains everything.

Over the years, I have seen the film over six times. I would be willing to see it six more times because I am not anywhere near through with it yet.

 

Favorite Films: Detour (1945)

Poster for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

The poster is a mess, but the film isn’t. It was released by the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) “studio” and starred Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Some forty years ago, I re-used the PRC abbreviation to stand for a film series I ran at UCLA which I called the Poverty Row Cinemathèque, whose highlight was a quadruple feature directed by that most maudit of film directors, Edgar G. Ulmer. In addition to Detour, we screened Girls in Chains (1943), Club Havana (1946), and (I think) The Pirates of Capri (1949).

Ulmer did direct two masterpieces. One was The Black Cat (1934), starring both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The other was Detour, the story of a down at heels New York pianist played by Tom Neal as Al  Roberts who hitchhikes to California to be re-united with his girlfriend. Fate intervenes: In Arizona, he is picked up by Charles Haskell, who is a bit of a con man, and who tells of a woman he had picked nup named Vera who scratched his wrist when he put some moves on her. While Al takes over the driving responsibilities, the rain begins to fall and—while putting up the canvas top on the convertible—he discovers that the guy who picked him up had suddenly died.

Rather than try to flag down the police, Al drags the body into the bushes and covers it loosely. He then takes his wallet and the car. The 68-minute film is half over when Al meets a young woman hitching a ride a a gas station. The woman turns out to be the same Vera who scratched up Haskell, and she begins to try to blackmail and sexually dominate Al. She knows the car and knows that Al is not Haskell.

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

Vera turns out to be the center of the film. She is both relentless and ferocious. Never have I seen a female role that was so intense. By comparison, Al is passive and helpless. Rather than allowing him to part company, she tries to enlist him in a scheme to bilk Haskell’s dying rich father by passing himself off as the son. In the process, he accidentally kills Vera and, now thinking himself responsible for two deaths, hits the road.

If you’re interested in seeing this film, you should have no trouble. It is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. It is well worth your time.

“The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Robert Culp and Arlene Martel in “The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Arlene Martel and Robert Culp in “The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Right after lunch, it started to drizzle; and Martine was without her umbrella. So we decided to go to the Paley Center for Media and watch some old TV. While Martine was watching episodes of Amos and Andy and My Little Margie, I decided to watch an episode of The Outer Limits.

The episode in question was “The Demon with a Glass Hand,“ directed by Byron Haskin and written by Harlan Ellison. It starred Robert Culp as the mysterious Trent, whom we are told at the beginning has lived forever, and the elfin Arlene Martel as Consuelo Biros. It was originally aired on October 17, 1964, and was the fifth show in the show’s second season.

This was at a time when television was great. tt reached out to a more unified audience with a well crafted story authored by the talented paranoiac Harlan Ellison. Trent found himself in Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building (called the Dixon Building in the story), with a glass hand missing the middle three fingers. A group of killer extraterrestial aliens called the Kyben are being sent from the future to get Trent’s hand and to supply the missing glass fingers, which they have. The object is to question the hand as to where the seventy billion earthlings from the year AD 3000 have gone. At the same time, Trent must obtain these fingers so that he could answer the same question and protect the missing earth people.

Interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, Where Most of the Action Occurs

Interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, Where Most of the Action Occurs

My friends in the film industry are always trying to get me to watch television, which they say has vastly improved with new original series like Breaking Bad and The Game of Thrones. In the relationship that Martine and I have, she gets to control the TV while I hit the books. Occasionally, I will watch a DVD while she is out taking a walk. That seems to work well for both of us, and I don’t feel as if I were missing out on anything.

In any case, it is fun to see some of the old classic television series like The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock, and One Step Beyond. I also have a real fondness for The Carol Burnett Show.

Favorite Films: Stagecoach (1939)

The First Shot of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach

The First Shot of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach

Until John Ford filmed Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was in sad shape as a genre. There was a lot of galloping horses chasing other galloping horses. In one fell swoop, Ford opened up the Western. For starters, it was the first Western to take advantage of the stunning scenery of Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The Indians in the picture were real Indians—even if they were Navahos playing Chiricahua Apaches.

Although it was John Wayne’s first major release, it was by no means a John Wayne vehicle: Rather, it was an an ensemble production (see poster below) in which Claire Trevor received top billing as a prostitute driven out of the town of Tonto by the forces of morality. At roughly equial billing were Thomas Mitchell as a boozy physician; George Bancroft as a sheriff; Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver; John Carradine as the gambler Hatfield; Louise Lasser as the pregnant wife of a U.S. Cavalry officer; Berton Churchill as an obnoxious banker; and Donald Meek as a, well, meek whisky salesman.

Stagecoach is a film that is always in motion, even when the scene moves indoors. Ford plays one character off against the other. Their stage ride to Lordsburg takes them through an area where Geronimo, having broken out of the reservation, is attacking ranches and preventing the stagecoach from having a reliable Cavalry escort.

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

Poster Emphasizing the Ensemble Acting in Stagecoach

The Apache attack on the stagecoach contains some of the most outstanding (and dangerous) stunt work to appear in a Western. At one point, stuntman Yakima Canutt, dressed as an Indian, jumps on the lead horse of the coach’s team, is shot by John Wayne, and falls under the team and under the wheels of the coach, being dragged by the lead horse for several feet before letting go. The chances for such a shot to end in tragedy are almost overwhelming.

In the end, the film leaves me with the impression of all the legendary elements of the Western in a single film: Cavalry, Indians, gunfights, thieves, Mexicans, and—above all—the wide-open spaces of Monument Valley.

This is a great film; John Ford is a great (if not the greatest) film director; and, together with Samurai films, Westerns are my favorite film genre. That’s a pretty formidable combo.

Favorite Films: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Les dames du bois de boulogne 1945 real : Robert Bresson Paul Bernard Maria Casares Elina Labourdette COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL

Poster for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I’ve come down with my second cold of the winter season, so I decided to stay home and watch some DVDs. The last of them I purchased at Cinecon, not even knowing whether it had English subtitles. Fortunately, I did not have to watch it with Korean titles.

For over half a century, I have loved the films of Robert Bresson, beginning with Diary of a Country Priest (1951), in which a sickly young parish priest tries to minister to an uncaring, even malicious congregation. Over the years, I have seen most of his films—all of which I deemed to be masterpieces or better. Pickpocket (1959) I would easily put on a list of the best ten films ever made.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne came out in the year of my birth. It is a very French film based on a very French source, Denis Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste, an 18th century picaresque novel. Bresson takes one of the stories in the novel and sets it in present day Paris.

Think of it as a tale of revenge. Hélène (played by a gorgeous Maria Casarès) breaks up with her boyfriend Jean (Paul Bernard). While they both pretend to be very civilized about the relationship, there are those two telltale tears below Hélène’s eyes that tell a different story. By accident, Hélène and Jean meat up with a beautiful young dancer, Agnès (Elina Labourdette) and her mother. Jean falls hard for Agnès, which gives Hélène her chance. She sets up the dancer and her mother in an apartment and stage manages Jean’s increasing infatuation. What Jean does not know is that Agnès was also something of a prostitute, though she seems intent on leaving the profession. Jean and Agnès marry, and Hélène casually tells Jean at the reception that most of the men at the wedding have enjoyed the favors of the bride.

Maria Casarès

Maria Casarès

I had seen the film many years ago and didn’t like it. This is a relatively rare case of me going from zero to sixty in half a century. (It could be that the print I saw was a bad 16mm print: I think it was.) Now I love the film so much that I will also undertake soon to readt he Diderot novel on which it is based. I was supposed to have read it in French at Dartmouth for a class in 18th century French literature, but I punted it.

By the way, don’t ever skip a chance to see one of Bresson’s films.

A Baker’s Dozen of Great Japanese Filmmakers

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakii (1962)

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakii (1962)

I have written on a number of occasions of my admiration of Japanese films, particularly those of the 1950s and 1960s, when it seems their film industry could do no wrong. Following is a list of my favorite directors followed by my favorites of their films.

If it seems most of the films deal with samurai, it is because I dearly love the genre.

  • Hideo Gosha: Goyokin (1969)
  • Kon Ichikawa: The Burmese Harp (1956), Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
  • Kazuo Ikehiro: Trail of Traps (1965), Castle Menagerie (1969)
  • Hiroshi Inagaki: The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)
  • Keisuke Kinoshita: The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
  • Masaki Kobayashi: The Human Condition Trilogy (1959-1961), Harakiri (1962), and Kwaidan (1964)
  • AKIRA KUROSAWA: Just about anything he did, most notably Rashomon (1950), The Seven Samurai (1954), and The Hidden Fortress (1958)
  • Kenji Misumi: Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
  • KENJI MIZOGUCHI: Just about anything he did, especially Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)
  • Kihachi Okamato: Samurai Assassin (1965), The Sword of Doom (1966)
  • YASUJIRO OZU: Just about anything he did, including Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953)
  • Kaneto Shindo: Onibaba (1964)
  • Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Woman in the Dunes (1964)

The directors whose names are in red (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu) are by far the greatest, with Kobayashi not far behind.

 

When Betty Boop Was a Dog

Wanna Be a Member? Wanna Be a Member?”

“Wanna Be a Member? Wanna Be a Member?”

Today, Martine and I went to see a program entitled “The Greatest Cartoons Ever!” at the Alex Theater in Glendale. It was the 6th Annual show of cartoons put on by the Alex Film Society. Most of the cartoons were outstanding, but the one that caught my eye was a pre-Code black and white cartoon released in 1931 by the Fleischer Studios. Directed by Dave Fleischer, it starred Bimbo the dog and a very early Betty Boop.

Bimbo is trucking down the street when he falls through an open manhole, slides down a ramp into a strange kind of funhouse, and is accosted (see picture) by a bunch of strange members of a secret society who ask him: “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” When Bimbo loudly answers, “No,” he is sent further into the funhouse where there are various life-threatening traps including knives, an anvil-like device full of sharp blades, and other threatening traps.

Several times, he is asked by the members of the secret society whether he wants to become a member. Each time he vociferously refuses. Finally, one of the members takes off his costume and is revealed to be Betty Boop, which makes Bimbo change his tune. He becomes a member, and all the garbed members are revealed to be Betty Boops.

There is one difference, however. Betty and her backup dancers all have floppy dog ears. No matter: Bimbo is now delighted to join with such “pips.”

If you have six minutes, you can see the cartoon on YouTube. It’s pretty wild.