Posters for The Seven Samurai (1954) and Harakiri (1962)

When I first came to Los Angeles in 1967, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with everything Japanese. That included Japanese films, Japanese food, Japanese literature, and Japanese women. My first long RTD (Rapid Transit District) ride was on the old #83 Wilshire Boulevard route from West L.A. to La Brea Boulevard, where the Toho LaBrea theater was located a couple blocks south. I even remember the film: It was Part One of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy.

Here I was, a Hungarian kid from Cleveland, finding a kind of home in the Japanese community of L.A. I even moved to Mississippi Avenue in the Sawtelle Japanese district, where there were two Japanese restaurants, the O-Sho and the Futaba Café. They were my first introduction to the cuisine. I was pretty raw at the time: When I had my first cubes of tofu in miso soup, I thought, “I’ll bet these are cut-up shark fins!”

I used to hate seafood. I thought the fish there was picked up from floating debris atop polluted Lake Erie. Now on my own in Southern California, I found myself trying (and loving) sushi after five short years.

What I loved most, however, were Japanese jidaigeki (period films), particularly those set in the samurai era. My friends Alain Silver and Jim Ursini (who collaborated on the first book on samurai films to be published in the U.S.) and I would regularly go to one of the five Japanese movie theaters then existing in Los Angeles:

  • The Toho LaBrea screened films from the Toho Studio
  • The Kokusai and Sho Tokyo theaters played Daiei films—probably my favorite
  • The Kabuki played films from Shochiku
  • The Linda Lea (my least favorite) played films from Tohei

They are all gone now. It’s all part of the growing Americanization of Japanese-Americans.

The Kokusai Theater on Crenshaw South of Adams

In fact, Alain, Jim, an I wrote a column for the UCLA Daily Bruin called “The Exotic Filmgoer.” The articles were all signed Tarnmoor (which, curiously, is the name I go under for this blog). We wrote about the Japanese and other ethnic cinemas that existed back around 1970.

I still love jidaigeki, though they’re not usually to be found around town playing in movie theaters. I have a large collection of DVDs of samurai films, and watch the Japanese films on the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel when they are playing.

And I still love Japanese food, though sushi is getting to be priced beyond my means.

Favorite Films: Sunrise (1927)

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans

It is difficult to think that the first time I saw F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans was some half century after it was produced in 1927. And now I saw it again, almost a century after it was produced. Each time, I thought it was one of the most beautiful films ever made.

None of the characters in the film are named. Unlike most silent films, there were few titles. Murnau had the unique ability to let the visuals speak by themselves, except for a few times when it was absolutely necessary. We begin with a farmer and his wife whose relationship is falling apart because of a girl from the city who is vacationing in their community and who is targeting the farmer for what she can get out of him.

In one of their trysts, the city girl suggests that the farmer take his wife boating and drown her. She even collects bullrushes so that the farmer can save himself by floating on them after he has deliberately swamped the rowboat.

He does take his wife on a boat ride to the city. At one point, he looms over her scaring her. She knows about the relationship and is scared for her life, and for their child, who has been left at home under the care of a maid. The farmer repents of his intention and works at winning her back once they reach the city. These city scenes are by far the best in the film, as he takes her to a restaurant, a photography studio, a church wedding, a barber shop, a carnival, and a dance hall. By the end of the evening, they are obviously still in love with each other. And Murnau’s images of the city are magical.

The Farmer and His Wife in the Magical City Scenes

On the boat ride back to the farm, a storm rises; and the husband and wife are separated as the boat sinks. Has what the farmer planned to do happened by accident? You’ll just have to see the film to find out. And that would definitely be worth your while.

Celebrating the Oscars—Not!

Tomorrow, I will, as usual, NOT watch the Oscars. That should make it about 50 consecutive years of non-participation in the annual awards show. I have nothing against Host Jimmy Kimmel whose weekday show I occasionally watch. Instead, I find that the Academy of Motion Pictures and I disagree most of the time.

If I were a member of the Academy, what films would I have chosen? Actually, I wrote a series of posts about that very subject about ten years ago:

After 1980, I find there are too few American films to merit my attention. In fact, last year I have seen a grand total of two films in theaters—and one of them was a Roger Corman title from the 1960s. The other film was Bullet Train, which I thought was pretty wretched.


Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022) with Wife Anna Karina

Beginning in the 1960s and extending through the early 1970s, I thought that the most exciting filmmaker in the world was Jean-Luc Godard. While I was a film student at UCLA, it seemed that two or three new titles came out every year. All of them enthralled me.

Then, something happened. When La Chinoise came out, I was sorely disappointed. Always sympathetic to revolutionaries, Godard seemed to have turned Maoist. His stars—Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anna Wiazemski—endlessly quoted from Chairman Mao’s little red book. Godard had gone doctrinaire on me. Even though I myself had flirted with the Progressive Labor Party in 1967, as a Hungarian-American I had uneasy feelings about dogmatic Communism.

La Chinoise: Way Too Dogmatic

Still, I thought that most of Godard’s films of the 1960s were exciting. At the time, all my favorite American directors were either dead or dying, and here was a young French director still in his thirties who could be relied upon to produce more masterpieces in the years to come. Alas! It was not to be. I have seen a few of his later productions, which I found not quite up to the standard Godard had set earlier in his career.

Among my favorites of his were:

  • À bout de souffle or Breathless (1960), one of the iconic films of the French New Wave
  • Vivre sa vie or My Life to Live (1962)
  • Le mépris or Contempt (1963), starring Brigitte Bardot
  • Alphaville (1965), a great combo of noir and science fiction
  • Pierrot le fou (1965)
  • Masculin féminin (1966), starring French pop star Chantal Goya
  • Made in USA (1966)
  • Weekend (1967), an apocalyptic satire of the French bourgeoisie

Many of the above films starred Godard’s wife, the lovely Anna Karina, which for me served as an added inducement to see the films.

Godard continued to make films. Between 1968 and 1972, he made political films with the Dziga Vertov Group, none of which I have seen. As late as 2022, he kept releasing films. The exhilaration of the earlier works, however, was gone. I have yet to see more than a handful of them, but I would like to at some point. Many of them are pretty obscure and hard to find.

Last year, at the age of 91, Godard found himself suffering from a series of incapacitating illnesses, such that he committed assisted suicide on September 13, which is allowed by Swiss law. It is an unfortunate end for a great artist whose work influenced my life in so many ways at a time when I was young and alienated. But then, such is life.

Marlowe Times Three

Raymond Chandler had the good fortune to have three excellent movies adapted from his books. There have been others, too, but they are either rarely seen or not quite up to snuff.

  • The Big Sleep (Warner Brothers 1946), directed by Howard Hawks with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe
  • Lady in the Lake (MGM 1947), directed by Robert Montgomery and starring the director as Marlowe
  • Murder, My Sweet (RKO 1944), directed by Edward Dmytryk with Dick Powell as Marlowe

The films are listed in order from my most favorite to my least favorite—though I like all three very much and have seen all of them multiple times.I consider The Big Sleep as one of the 10 best American films ever made.

Lady in the Lake was a tour de force all filmed by Robert Montgomery from the point of view of Philip Marlowe. The only times we see Marlowe are at the beginning and end of the film and when Marlowe looks in the mirror. It was a chancy experiment, but it succeeded largely because of the great acting job put in by Audrey Totter.

I just saw Murder, My Sweet again for the nth time this afternoon on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The film was based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. It came at a key point in Dick Powell’s acting career: Hitherto, he had been a singer and dancer. With this film, he showed he could be as hard-boiled as anyone in Hollywood.

Raymond Chandler’s novels and stories are among my favorite works of mystery fiction. I have read them all, several of them multiple times. And I will continue to re-view these three films again and again.

Pumpkins and Skeletons

This last Saturday, Martine and I visited the Grier Musser Museum, which had just re-opened to the public after the Covid-19 lockdown. I have always particularly loved their Halloween antiques, art, and other displays, such as the above throw pillow. Martine wore her witch costume (see yesterday’s post: Decidedly a Good Witch). We both resolved to re-visit them just before Christmas, when their displays will be less horrific.

Tonight, I watched four horror films in a row, three of which were the original Universal Frankenstein releases:

  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • The Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Plague of Zombies (1966)—a Hammer horror film

I waited by the door just in case some trick-or-treaters would come. As usual none came. I don’t think any have climbed the stairs for upwards of thirty years. I thought this year would be different because my downstairs neighbors are Ukrainian refugees with two young daughters.

Now that Halloween is almost past, I realize we are in the HallowThanksMas Continuum, where three Holidays seem to come one after the other like falling dominoes.

This October, I read four horror-related books in celebration of Halloween:

  • Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine (1817-1834)
  • Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), the first half of which is set in a spooky abandoned monastery
  • Edith Wharton’s Ghosts (1937), selected by the author
  • Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008), a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley story

The Horror Films of Val Lewton

Lobby Card for Val Lewton’s The Cat People

The following is a repost from October 31, 2015. I had just saw The Leopard Man on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and started thinking (for the nth time) how great Val Lewton was as a producer—probably the only great film producer.

There are horror films, and there are horror films. They can scare you out of your wits, like Curse of the Demon (1957) and Poltergeist (1982), or they can make you understand that the world is both light and dark in equal measure, like Val Lewton’s great films of the 1940s, such as The Cat People (1942).

Val Lewton, born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia, was interested in making low budget films to compete with Universal Pictures’ highly successful Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Wolf Man franchises. The title for The Cat People was assigned to Lewton by RKO, and Lewton went to work on a psychological thriller in which there is no overt violence. Perhaps the greatest scene takes place in a swimming pool in which a young woman is swimming all by herself at night. In the shadows, we imagine there is a black panther, but neither the swimmer nor we the viewers are absolutely sure.

Even though Halloween is just about over, I highly recommend all the following Lewton films:

  • The Cat People (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • The Leopard Man (1943)
  • The Seventh Victim (1943)
  • The Ghost Ship (1943)
  • The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • The Body Snatcher (1945)
  • Isle of the Dead (1945)
  • Bedlam (1946)

All are great films worthy of being seen multiple times. They are short, thoughtful, extremely moody, and highly successful. Also available is a Turner Classics biopic about Lewton’s career called Shadows in the Dark narrated by Martin Scorsese. Martine and I watched it last night and recommend you see it.

In all of Hollywood’s history, Lewton was probably the only film producer who controlled his products as if he were the director. Even though Lewton directorial protegés Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson went on to have brilliant careers, when one is watching a Lewton film, one recognizes it as a Lewton film.

Favorite Films: Kill Bill 1 and 2

Uma Thurman as Beatrix Kiddo Wielding Her Hattori Hanzo Sword

Of the current batch of U.S. film directors, among the ones I like the most is Quentin Tarantino. Granted his films could be a tad violent, especially the two films in the Kill Bill series; but they are like bloody ballets. It also helps that the films star the lovely Uma Thurman, whom I had always thought was Swedish though she was born in Boston, Massachusetts.

Last night, I was surfing the Showtime channels when I landed around a quarter of an hour into Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004). Although I had seen both parts of the saga multiple times, I took the time to see Uma as Beatrix Kiddo kill several members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who sprayed bullets into her attempted wedding to an El Paso record shop owner. In Volume 1 (2-003) messy she had sliced Vernita Green, O-Ren Ishii, and the latter’s Crazy 88s gang into sashimi. In Volume 2, she sends Bill’s brother Budd and Elle Driver (played by Darryl Hannah) into a white trash trailer massacre followed by Bill himself—who dies by the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique at a Mexican beach resort.

Along the way, we have an interlude wherein Beatrix is taught advanced martial arts technique by a Chinese immortal named Pai Mei.

Pai Mei Astounds Beatrix Kiddo

This segment is almost a film in its own right, though it does show two things:

  • How Beatrix avoids beings buried alive in Barstow by Bill’s brother, who had shot her in the chest with two shotgun shells filled with rock salt
  • How Elle Driver had one eye poked out as a result of sassing Pai Mei

I don’t know how many more times I will see the Kill Bill films, though I bet I will continue to enjoy them.

The Scariest Film Ever Made?

The Eponymous Villain of Curse of the Demon

As of today, I have seen Jacques Tourneur’s excellent The Curse of the Demon at least half a dozen times. (The film, released by Columbia in 1957, is also known as Night of the Demon.)

I regard films involving demonology as potentially the scariest of horror films. After all, there are ways to overcome vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and zombies; but no one can overcome Satan himself. The script is based on a famous short story by M. R. James entitled “Casting the Runes.” You can find a copy of the story by clicking here.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is a skeptical investigator sent from the U.S. to England to speak at an international conference on the paranormal, shortly after one of the other speakers dies gruesomely outside his home. It is suspected that Dr. Julian Karswell, a British Satanist, was involved.

Karswell meets Holden in the British Library Reading Room, where he chivalrously reaches down and hands Holden a file he has dropped. Inside that file is a strip of paper with an ancient runish curse that Holden will die at 10 pm several days hence.

As the time approaches, Holden and the niece of the dead investigator try to understand what is happening and to cleverly circumvent it.

Along the way, there are weird sequences when Karswell summons the powers of darkness to scare Holden and convince him that he is a goner.

This is a film worth seeing multiple times. Watch out that you don’t bite your tongue while munching on popcorn during the scarier scenes.

Favorite Films: Out of the Past (1947)

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in RKO’s Out of the Past

It seems the most unlikely place to open one of the greatest film noir productions that Hollywood ever made: the bright sunny town of Bridgeport, California, within view of the Eastern Sierras. (But then, didn’t Warner Brothers’ High Sierra end up with Humphrey Bogart’s death in the same general area?)

I have seen Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past approximately half a dozen times now and am nowhere near tired of the film. It contains early performances by Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, and a sockdollager femme fatale performance by Jane Greer. Jane would have had a brilliant career if Howard Hughes hadn’t fallen in love with her and gotten the brush-off when she married someone else: She remained on contract to RKO, but she was not chosen for many roles.

The plot concerns a gas station operator in Bridgeport who has, in the past, worked for a sleazy gangster played by Kirk Douglas. Though he changed his name and disappeared to a small town, Douglas has him tracked down and sucks him into his criminal schemes. In this, he is abetted by the devious Jane Greer, who, it seems, is unable to tell the truth, even when she and Mitchum fall for each other.

It’s strange that so soon after the glorious victory of World War Two by the so-called Greatest Generation, Hollywood produced so many great films noted for their pessimism. And this is one of the most pessimistic, with the message that if you should stray ever so slightly off the straight and narrow path, you are an irredeemable goner.

This is a film that never grows old. I may have aged since the first time I viewed it, but the film is still as fresh as an Eastern Sierra field full of wildflowers.