My Japanese Years

Mifune Toshiro in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple

It all came back to me while I had a Japanese meal with Martine at the Aki Restaurant in West Los Angeles. When I first came to Los Angeles in late 1966 I quickly became a Nipponophile. I lived for a while on Mississippi Avenue in the middle of the Sawtelle neighborhood, the old Japanese plant nursery district. Even before I started my explorations of Mexican food, I started becoming a Japanese foodie. I even thought the little tofu cubes in my miso soup were shark’s fin. (I marveled at my sophistication in eating “shark’s fin” soup.)

Since i was a graduate student in film at UCLA, I made a point of seeing as many Japanese films as I could. I remember taking the MTA #81 bus down Wilshire Boulevard to La Brea and walking a couple blocks south to the old Toho La Brea theater. The first films I saw there were Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamato Musashi (based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel) trilogy: Samurai (1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956). I fancied myself falling love with the sweet Kaoru Yachigusa, who played the part of Otsu; and of course I hero-worshipped Toshiro Mifune as the hero of he saga.

The Toho La Brea theater had a clock over the left emergency exit that was illuminated with the words Sumitomo Bank. All features were preceded by an Asahi Shimbun newsreel in Japanese without subtitles. Although I couldn’t understand a word, I looked forward to the newsreels.

A few years later, I joined with my film freak friends in visiting the other Japanese theaters in town: the Kokusai and Sho Tokyo (both Daiei studio), Kabuki (Shochiku), and the Linda Lea (Tohei). Today all five Japanese theaters are gone.

By the way, ever wonder why I call this website Tarnmoor? That was a pseudonym I used along with two of my friends in a UCLA Daily Bruin column entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which was mostly about these Japanese theaters.

99¢ Triple Features—All Night

The Palace Theater on Broadway

The Palace Theater on Broadway

During the late 1960s, when I was a film student at UCLA, I felt I had to catch up fast in my knowledge of American films. After all, it was foreign films like Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1948) and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1957) that introduced me to what the film medium could do.

So I went with my late friend Norm Witty to see the 99¢ triple features at the remaining movie theaters on Broadway downtown. Most of these theaters are no longer showing films, though at one time it represented the highest concentration of movie theaters in the U.S.; it was called the Broadway Theater District. It included the Cameo, the Tower, the Palace, the Los Angeles, the Arcade, the Roxie, and the Olympic theaters (though the last one was located on West 8th Street). Most of them ran movies all day and all night, usually as triple features.

Even back then, most of the patrons were just intent on getting a good night’s sleep in a theater seat that wasn’t too sticky or dirty. The rest rooms were something of a horror, and the refreshments were pretty disgusting. The worst of all was the Arcade, which we went to only once.

Poster for Universal’s The War Lord (1965)

Poster for Universal’s The War Lord (1965)

Probably the best film I saw on these all-night excursions was a Universal picture starring Charlton Heston, Richard Boone, and a radiant Rosemary Forsyth called The War Lord (1965). Heston and Boone are two Norman knights who take control of a Saxon village. Heston falls in love with Rosemary Forsyth, a Saxon maiden who is betrothed to another villager. When he exercises the jus primae noctis (“the right of the first night”) and demands the right to bed her before her betrothed, the Saxons begin to mutter. But then Heston decides to keep her, and war breaks out. Franklin Schaeffner directed the film, which is still worth seeing when it comes around.

 

The Crown Prince of Grade Z Films

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The first time I ever heard of him was when I was a student at Dartmouth. At that time (the mid 1960s) I subscribed to Films and Filming. One issue contained an article entitled “The Crown Prince of Z Films,” referring, of course, to Roger Corman. I was intrigued by what I was hearing of the cheapster director who made so many interesting films for American International Pictures. What I liked most were the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, usually starring Vincent Price.

Perhaps my favorite was The Masque of the Red Death (1964), about the attempt by a group of dissipated nobles to escape the plague. There were others in the series, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Premature Burial (1962), The Raven (1963), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964).

A Young Roger Corman (Left) with Vincent Price

A Young Roger Corman (Left) with Vincent Price

When I first met Martine in the late 1980s, I discovered that she was a hard-core Corman addict, liking such films as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and the original The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which was shot in under a week on a shoestring budget. There are in all about a dozen films he directed that are worth seeing and hold up well over the years. (He also made not a few clinkers, but that’s showbiz!) After he stopped directing around 1970 he continued to produce films and was responsible for some 300+ films over his half century career.

Other than the Poe features, I also enjoyed I, Mobster (1958), A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Intruder (1962) starring William Shatner, Tales of Terror (1962), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) starring Ray Milland, The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip (1967), and Bloody Mama (1970).

Corman introduced us to Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Bruce Dern, to name just a few. In his films were such stars as Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.

Perhaps I had a misspent youth, but I sure enjoyed it—and continue to do so….

Hidden in the Credits

Production Designer Sir Ken Adam

Production Designer Sir Ken Adam

Above all, we tend to give credit to the actors in a movie. Those who know a little more about how films will tend to credit the director. But it doesn’t stop there. What about producers like Val Lewton and Henry Blanke, cinematographers like Gregg Toland and Gabriel Figueroa, editors like Slavko Vorkapich, and—more to the point here—production designers like Sir Ken Adam?

I remember having a Dartmouth Film Society dinner with Hollywood producer Max Youngstein in the mid 1960s. He had just produced Fail-Safe (1964). When I asked him if the production had been designed by Ken Adam, he positively beamed at me. He prided himself for having found someone else who gave the film a Ken Adam touch.

Why? Ken Adam was responsible for film designs which will forever be associated in our minds with the best of the 1960s, such as Doctor No (1962) and Doctor Strangelove (1964).

Doctor No’s “Reception Room” in the Film of the Same Name

Doctor No’s “Reception Room” in the Film of the Same Name

In addition there was the War Room in Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964):

 

Kubrick’s War Room in Doctor Strangelove

Model for Kubrick’s War Room in Doctor Strangelove

As one who lived through that anxious time, I will always remember Ken Adam’s sets for these and other films. Perhaps he is unknown to the general film-going public, but now that we lost him, his vision will be missed.

Favorite Films: The IPCRESS File

Michael Caine in The IPCRESS File (1965)

Michael Caine in The IPCRESS File (1965)

Michael Caine co-starred with a pair of glasses (curiously similar to the ones that Rick Perry sported while he was still running for President) in a spy film that was most un-James-Bond-like, despite the fact that Harry Saltzman produced both The IPCRESS File and many of the classic Bonds.

(By the way, if you’re wondering why IPCRESS is in all caps, it’s because it’s an acronym for Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex with Stress, the brainwashing scheme used by Commie spies to “turn” British scientists.)

The IPCRESS File was Michael Caine’s first big shot at stardom. His spy is unnamed in Len Deighton’s novels, but you couldn’t very well have an unnamed character in a film who is constantly being directly addressed by his friends and co-workers. It was Caine who came up with the moniker Harry Palmer, and it stuck.

Palmer’s world of spies is much dirtier than Bond’s. You wouldn’t suspect M or Q or Miss Moneypenny for being a Russian plant; but in Harry Palmer’s WOOC(P) [SIC] organization no one is near as squeaky clean.

In the film, Harry accidentally kills one CIA operative in an underground garage who was tailing him too closely and is suspected of killing another whose bullet-riddled body is found in his flat.

Kidnapped from a train, Harry finds himself in an Albanian prison being brainwashed to forget everything he knew about the IPCRESS project. Some people, and Harry is one of them, just can’t succumb to brainwashing; and he comes out ahead.

Sidney J. Furie’s film direction is edgy and effective. I had not seen the film since my college days when I saw that it was being screened on Turner Classic Movies. Coincidentally, I had read Deighton’s novel just a couple of weeks ago.

 

… And the Envelope Please …

#OscarsSoPolitical

#OscarsSoIrrelevant

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I have ignored the Oscars for the last thirty or forty years. For one thing, they have rarely honored the films I liked, and they primarily reflect the opinions of a lot of privileged old white men. Just as significant: I rarely see new films.

Los Angeles is something of a company town, so the media is full of “countdowns” to the Oscars. Do they really need a pre-game show?

Fortunately, a lot of people watch this and other awards shows. As with the Super Bowl, that clears the freeways of a lot of excess traffic. I plan to take advantage by going with Martine to visit my friends Bill and Kathy Korn in Altadena.

No offense to Chris Rock, who will probably be a lot more entertaining than the films being honored.

Tea with Mary Ellen

William S. Hart, Silent Star of Westerns

William S. Hart, Silent Star of Westerns

Martine and I usually visit the William S. Hart house in Newhall at least twice a year. It is operated by the Los Angeles Natural History Museum and receives numerous visitors, most of whom have little idea of who Hart was. I have seen many of his silent Westerns, such as Hell’s Hinges (1916), Blue Blazes Rawden (1918), and Tumbleweeds (1925).

Moreover, I knew his son William S. Hart, Jr., who taught classes in real estate at Cal State Northridge. I spoke as an expert in demographic data for site location to his classes several times in the early 1980s.

For a three month period in 1922, William S. Hart, Sr. was married to Hollywood actress Winifred Westover. During this time, William, Jr. was conceived. Several years later their divorce was finalized.

William, Sr., lived out the rest of his life at La Loma de los Vientos, his hilltop house in Newhall, with his sister Mary Ellen, who had to move about in a wheelchair. She assisted her brother in writing and publishing a series of novels with Western themes.

The Door to Mary Ellen’s Little Tea House

The Door to Mary Ellen’s Little Tea House

Mary Ellen’s brother never married again. They lived together until 1943, when Mary Ellen died. William followed her three years later. They are both buried in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

There was a strain of loneliness in the family. Once, when Bill Hart, Jr., offered me a ride after lecturing to one of his classes, he told me he married a single mother with a child and suggested I do so as well as a means of staving off isolation. Bill died in 2004.

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