Lone Wolf and Cub

Former Executioner Ogami Itto with Son Daigoro

I have always loved Japanese samurai films. Now, during my quarantine, I have been checking out some of the more marginal samurai series. As of today, I have seen all six of the Lone Wolf and Cub films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama and produced by the Toho studio in the early 1970s. These films include:

  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972), dir: Buichi Saito
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973), dir: Kenji Misumi
  • Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974), dir: Yoshiyuki Kuroda

In all six films, Ogami Itto is pushing a wooden baby carriage which comes complete with an impressive series of armaments, including an early precursor of the Gatling Gun (?!). In White Heaven in Hell, it even turns into a toboggan, enabling Ogami to escape hundreds of attacking members of the Ura-Yagyu clan mounted on skis.

The body count in all six films easily exceeds a thousand, as the combination of Ogami’s swordsmanship and the rapid-fire machine gun built into the baby carriage wreaks havoc on his enemies.

Film Poster for Lone Wolf: Baby Cart in Peril

Obviously the source for the films comes from Japanese comic books known as manga. Below is a panel from one of the comics:

A Feeling for the Manga Source of the Films

Although there is no real dedication to realism or even plausibility in either the films or the comic books, the films are all well-crafted Toho Studio productions and immensely entertaining. There is some minor nudity in the films and a great deal of violence.

 

 

007

Poster for The Living Daylights (1987)

During this extended period of quarantine, I have relied more and more on sheer entertainment value. In terms of film, nothing fills the bill quite like the James Bond films—almost irrespective of the actor that plays 007. I have just seen The Living Daylights starring Timothy Dalton as the ace British spy. It doesn’t seem to matter that the plots are highly unlikely. In compensation, there are the Bond girls, in this film, Maryam d’Abo fills the role quite appetizingly.

Ever since my freshman year in college when Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, and Joseph Wiseman starred in Doctor No, I have loved the Bond films. Not only that, during my college terms, I managed to read most of the Ian Fleming novels written to date. And since I graduated, I read all the rest of them that followed.

Timothy Dalton and Maryam d’Abo in The Living Daylights

I suspect that John LeCarré and Len Deighton wrote spy novels that were more true to life, but it really doesn’t matter. The continuing characters of M, Q, Felix Leiter, and Miss Moneypenny help provide continuity. The only James Bond film I did not like was 1967’s Casino Royale with Peter Sellers as 007, which I saw as a somewhat leaden spoof. Plus, it just doesn’t fit in with all the other Bonds, and it is in no way true to the Ian Fleming novel of the same name.

James Bond Hitches a Ride in Gibraltar

There are still about eight or nine Bond films I haven’t yet seen. It is my intention to remedy that oversight before the end of the year, if I can. In this year of ultimate unreality, the unreality of James Bond is curiously soothing.

 

Plague Diary 20: More Books and Films

Christopher Plummer in Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades

It was yet another day in quarantine (I am not keeping count). I started by making hot chocolate with the premium chocolate I had purchased in Mexico during my vacation. When produced in a double boiler the chocolate comes out perfect every time.

Then I decided to take a walk to the mailbox on Barry, about a mile east of here, to return a Netflix DVD of two Japanese samurai films I had seen over the previous two days. (I will write more about them in a future post.) I also wanted to stop in at the local Target store, but I had forgotten to bring my face mask with me—something I do about half the time. I notice a lot of people wear face masks all the time. They remind me of people who sleep alone with condoms draped over their jewels.

I returned to eat lunch with Martine. Mine was a couple of Chinese beef buns accompanied by frozen peach slices. While Martine went for her afternoon walk, I watched Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (1958) starring Burl Ives and Christopher Plummer. There were some beautiful shots of the Everglades and its bird life, and some highly dubious plotting, even if Budd Schulberg wrote the script.

Martine had wanted us to order Japanese from the Aki Restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd, so I phoned in an order and picked it up. It was a tasty reminder of when we used to eat our weekend meals in restaurants.

After dinner, I began reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), set during the Chechen wars. It looked like a good read.

Which brings me near to the end of another day. I will watch another episode of “Deep Space 9” and hit the sack.

 

 

The Social Distancing Film Festival

It’s Not the Big Screen, But It’s Still Good

First, my apologies for hijacking a photo from the University of California at Santa Barbara website. Secondly, I didn’t do several years of graduate study in film history and criticism without it having a lasting influence on me.

While Martine has been taking long walks to no particular destination (the destinations are all closed, anyway) and noting the takeover of the streets of L.A. by bums, I have been reading and watching a ton of movies. In twenty-six days this month, I have watched twenty-five movies:

04/03/20 Boorman, John Emerald Forest, The 1985
04/04/20 Menzies, William Cameron * Address Unknown 1944
04/05/20 Resnais, Alain Hiroshima Mon Amour 1959
04/06/20 Kurosawa, Akira * Rashomon 1950
04/07/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey 2012
04/08/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug 2013
04/10/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: The battle of the Five Armies 2014
04/11/20 Forster, Marc * Quantum of Solace 2008
04/11/20 Lang, Fritz * Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 1954
04/12/20 Wise, Robert * Set-Up, The 1949
04/14/20 Hertz, Nathan Attack of the 50 Foot Woman 1958
04/15/20 Dean, Alexandra Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story 2017
04/16/20 Totten, Robert Sacketts, The: Episode 1 [Made for TV] 1979
04/17/20 Totten, Robert Sacketts, The: Episode 2 [Made for TV] 1979
04/19/20 Siodmak, Robert * Phantom Lady 1944
04/20/20 Park, Chan-wook I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK 2006
04/21/20 Robson, Mark/Val Lewton * Isle of the Dead 1945
04/21/20 Misumi, Kenji * Sword of Vengeance 1972
04/22/20 Misumi, Kenji Baby Cart at the River Styx 1972
04/23/20 Tarantino, Quentin * Jackie Brown 1997
04/24/20 Parajanov, Sergei * Color of Pomegranates, The [Sayat Nova] 1969
04/24/20 Parajanov, Sergei Hagop Hovnatanian 1967
04/25/20 Rouse, Russell * Wicked Woman 1954
04/26/20 Keaton, Buster * Sherlock Jr 1924
04/27/20 Rapper, Irving * Now Voyager 1942

More than half of them, I really liked. Those are noted with an asterisk just before the title of the film. Predictably, most were either American film noir productions or Japanese jidai-geki (samurai films). A few were outright dogs.

As long as the quarantine/social-distancing rules remain in place, I will probably continue to see at least one film per day. Some of them are on DVD from Netflix; some from Turner Classic Movies (TCM); others from Spectrum Cable’s On Demand service.

 

Plague Diary 17: A Film About the Plague

There Is Only One Film I Know About Quarantining from the Plague

In the early 1940s, a Hollywood movie producer named Val Lewton (his real name was Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon) was responsible for a handful of great horror films in which the effects were more psychological than crude, which placed him pretty much in a one-man category.

Today, I saw (for the nth time) his film Isle of the Dead (1945), set on a strange Greek island during the First Balkan War (1912-13). Boris Karloff plays the Greek General Nikolas Pherides who, together with an American journalist, rows to an offshore island to visit the grave of his wife. He finds that her grave had been broken into and her body stolen. Worse yet, he lands on the island only to find that one of the guests in the house where he is staying has died of the plague.

Karloff and the other people on the island must quarantine until the wind changes. Once the hot, dry sirocco wind begins to blow, that particular strain of the plague dies off.

Boris Karloff as General Pherides, “The Watchdog”

The psychological element introduced by Lewton is a superstition of a vampire-like creature called a vorvolaka which is promulgated by a Greek peasant woman named Kyra serving in the house. Karloff, who prides himself by his nickname of “The Watchdog,” buys into the possibility of the truth of this superstition, blaming a young serving woman who is enjoying rubicund good health for being a vorvolaka.

The film is a scant 72 minutes long and would be an excellent choice for a Quarantining-at-Home Film Festival, even if it is one lone title. There is also an Elia Kazan film called Panic in the Streets (1950) which involves the plague but has no claustrophobic quarantining.

 

 

Beauty and Brains

Actress and Inventor Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

One of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on the silver screen was also a brilliant inventor whose work—for which she did not receive a dime—is used by most Americans on a daily basis.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, better known as Hedy Lamarr, was an Austrian actress from a Jewish family that fled to the United States on the brink of World War Two. She was slightly notorious for having appeared in the nude in Gustav Machaty’s Czech film Ecstasy (1933). Not only was she unclothed, but was photographed in a tight facial shot simulating an orgasm. As a result, the sanctimonious studio boss of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, put her in films, but never in the big productions.

Poster for Ecstasy (1933)

Still, Hedy did her best, starring in many films, but also making a unique contribution to the war effort. Working with music composer George Antheil, she developed an invention for producing an unjammable system for communicating with a torpedo that has been released. The method involved hopping across a broad spectrum of frequencies. In 1942, her invention was granted a patent, but never used during the war because the Navy thought they knew better. But by the time the patent expired in 1957, it was being used and is used today in Bluetooth technology and on legacy versions of WiFi.

Because Miss Lamarr did not renew the patent, she did not receive any remuneration for her invention. I just saw a thoughtful documentary by Alexandra Dean entitled Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017). Perhaps, in the end, Hedy was too smart for Hollywood—and Hollywood did not tend to reward actresses for their brains. She drifted through several marriages and several bouts of plastic surgery. But looks were never her problem. This woman had a brain, and that was unforgivable.

 

 

Plague Diary 3: Making Adjustments

Small World Books in Better Days

No one knows how long the current plague restrictions will be in place. I have to assume it will be for several weeks. During that time, I cannot go to the movies or dine at a restaurant or visit a museum. For lunch, I visited Bay Cities Imports, Santa Monica’s primo Italian import grocery, and bought one of their Spaniard sandwiches. Based on a review at the Food GPS site:

The Spaniard isn’t made to order; you’ll find them wrapped in white butcher paper on the deli counter, along with other grab-and-go sandwiches, meaning they may sit for awhile. Still, my experience with The Spaniard still worked out well. The small-ish sandwich was stacked with jamon serrano, coppa seca, honey ham, Pamplona chorizo, Gruyere cheese, oregano, parsley, roasted tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, and rosemary on a chewy baguette. Next time, I’ll probably beg to go back to The Godmother like some kind of guilt-ridden sandwich adulterer, but I enjoyed my brief fling with The Spaniard.

Since I could not eat lunch at the store, I took my lunch with me and drove to Venice, stopping at a parking meter and munching away while a parking enforcement officer kept circling my car seeing if she could ticket me. I waved my sandwich at her by way of greeting.

After I finished, I popped some quarters in the meter and walked to Small World Books. As you can see in the above photo, the bookstore is in the same building as the Sidewalk Cafe. As the bookstore is run by the wife of the cafe owner, it was not altogether surprising that it, too, is closed for the duration.

So I headed home and watched a DVD version of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue (1993), which I loved. I plan to see the other two films in the trilogy—White and Red (both 1994)—within the next few months. After dinner, I read another hundred pages of Jan Neruda’s Prague Tales.

 

 

Zeppelin Orgy

Book Based on the Movie

No one could say that it’s a good movie, but it certainly is an outrageous one. Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) starts out as a fairly standard bedroom farce and ends with an hour-long orgy aboard a zeppelin that starts out being tethered at a New York airport, and ends up being destroyed in a sudden electrical storm. Oh, and by the way, it’s a musical.

I first saw the film when it was screened by the Dartmouth Film Society in the mid 1960s. More than half a century later, I was still amazed by the film, which was screened tonight by Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

The zeppelin sequence begins with a song and dance number which, no doubt, was considered very advanced for the time:

An “Electrical” Song and Dance Number Aboard the Zeppelin

Cecil B. DeMille was famous for, on one hand publicly adhering to Puritan morality, and on the other pushing the “sin” routines for all they’re worth. The film was released well before the Motion Picture Code was adopted in 1934. Between the advent of sound and the censorship of the Hays Office, Hollywood produced some pretty racy films such as Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow, Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck, and King Kong (1933) with Fay Wray.

I remember seeing a racy outtakes reel from the latter film in which Kong exposes Fay Wray’s breasts and crushes a black native underfoot as if he were a cockroach.

The pre-code talkies produced by Hollywood tried to walk a straight and narrow path of Protestant morality, but had a little hypocritical fun doing it. The result is at times curiously sexy.

 

Phooey on the Oscars

I Continue My Decades-Long Boycott of the Oscars

Hollywood used to make great films. Sometimes they received awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. More frequently, they didn’t. The awards probably represented more than anything else the current state of film industry politics.

Every February, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel presents its “31 Days of Oscar” series. Curiously, I find that TCM movies during this period are not as good or interesting as the usual offerings at other times. In fact, I am downright angry that the “Noir Alley” series hosted by Eddie Muller will not return until after the 31-day Oscar orgy takes place.

I am not even talking about the smarmy annual show where the awards are presented. Neither Martine nor I watch the show, which is understandable inasmuch as we do not bother to see the majority of films in contention.

So once again, we are on the outs as far as popular culture is concerned. No problem there!

 

Favorite Films: A Christmas Story (1983)

Scott Schwartz as Flick and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie

It’s refreshing that a film produced as late as the 1980s has become a legitimate Christmas classic. Seeing it repeatedly has not diminished its appeal, even when seen in bits and pieces on TV channels that played the film for 24 hours straight.

The director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, is a filmmaker who has not produced anything else that comes up to the standard of this, his masterpiece. I have read Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and loved it. As good as the original story was, the film was better. The direction of the actors, particularly the child actors, was as good as anything I have ever seen.

Peter Billingsley Faces Jeff Gillen as Santa

There is another reason I love the film. Although the story is set in Indiana, scenes were set on Public Square in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent most of my childhood. I remember the Christmas parades there, and particularly the Christmas display windows at Higbee’s Department Store, which is clearly identified in the film. Other scenes may have been shot elsewhere, but most of the exteriors reminded me of Cleveland. Even Ralphie’s school looked exactly like Harvey Rice Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten and half of first grade. (I never finished first grade, but let that be our little secret.)

If I were the one scouting locations for A Christmas Story in such a way as to reflect my own childhood, I would not have done any differently than the producers of the film. That’s why every time I see this film, I am taking a trip down memory lane.