Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Night After Night After Night (1969)

A trench coat-wearing maniac stalks the Soho area of London, stabbing women with a switchblade.  Inspector Rowan (Gilbert Wynne) can’t catch a break in the case, though he’s keen to pin the murders on scuzzy lothario Pete (Donald Sumpter).  Meanwhile, Judge Lomax (Jack May) is having marital troubles, and his job may be getting to him (these may not be mutually exclusive).

Lindsay Shonteff’s (under the Lewis J. Force nom de guerre) Night After Night After Night (aka He Kills Night After Night After Night aka Night Slasher) is an intriguing, if slightly confused film.  It’s a sleazy sexploitation movie that indulges in the most prurient imagery (there’s a rather blatant shot of a stripper literally shaking her jugs at the camera) while stating that smut makes “perverts” into killers.  Simultaneously, it’s about how the system (and by extension, the murderer) condemns and punishes people for their sexuality while hypocritically desiring to satiate its own erotic passions.  Rowan and his wife Jenny (Linda Marlowe) are the most normal couple in the film.  They genuinely care about each other, and their relationship is fairly healthy.  Jenny is the only major character in the film who gets naked, and her sex scene with Rowan is loving, as are all of their interactions.  By contrast, Lomax and his wife Helena’s (Justine Lord) relationship is on the rocks.  They now sleep in separate bedrooms, and Helena even tries to reignite the old flame by “behav[ing] like a whore” (this consists of donning some black lingerie).  Lomax is completely disinterested, the daily grind of “remov[ing] cancer from society” having eroded his emotions down to stumps.  Pete states that he practically makes a career of “making birds.”  He flaunts his sexual exploits in Rowan’s face, telling him that he “banged” some woman in the park “and she liked it.”  He taunts Rowan about Jenny, teasing that he’ll visit her and give her what she needs (and what Rowan isn’t giving her [this is, of course, untrue; Pete’s just trying to, and succeeding in, getting a rise out of Rowan]).  Reducing Jenny to a receptacle for sex is tantamount to a criminal act in Rowan’s eyes (most especially since it’s also personal).  

Pete is odious in his lascivious, callous indifference towards his sexual partners and women in general, and it is this, above all else, that makes Rowan (and the audience) hate him to the point that he’s just dying to railroad Pete for the murders, guilty or not.  Rowan’s personal moral compass overrides his duty to uphold the law and follow procedures.  Likewise, Lomax despises the people who come before him in court, handing out the harshest sentences possible like a vengeful god, dispassionate toward extenuating circumstances.  He would rather send someone to jail for the maximum than get them hospitalized for mental issues or attempt to empathize in any way with them.  Lomax’s clerk Carter (Terry Scully) surreptitiously reads porn at work and frequents strip clubs.  Lomax admonishes him, “Overcome it, Carter, or it will destroy you.”  In Lomax’s mind, porn and rampant sexuality are a scourge, and it must be dealt with in the most severe way possible, but he stares at Jenny while dining at a restaurant, so we know that he still has sexual urges hidden somewhere.  He’s just tamping them down, because to consciously acknowledge them would be immoral.  The extremes of sexuality in the film (from unfettered to strangulated) are bad, morally and criminally, and the line between the two is portrayed as pretty slim.

And yet, the film does not hesitate to give the audience pulchritudinous female flesh at any given turn.  Aside from the aforementioned stripper and the sex scene between Jenny and Rowan, we get things like a gratuitous shot of the new undercover policewoman’s (Jacqueline Clarke) undies (go ahead and guess what she’s going undercover as).  We get an extended scene of Pete getting laid out in a field while some repressed girl (maybe just shy; Who the hell knows?  She’s creepy, regardless) watches.  She then offers herself to Pete, and he takes her up on it (talk about stamina).  We get extended closeups of breasts being groped and the like.  There’s a queasy complicity going on between the film and its target audience.  We want to watch the sex and nudity; we’re no different than the other men in the film.  Seeing these women killed because of the sexuality we desired to watch makes us participants in their deaths in a way that doesn’t happen as much in later slashers like the Friday the 13th films and so forth.  The difference, I believe, is in the heavy moralizing the two main male characters engage in so vociferously.  This places a sobriety and a sense of audience admonishment on the film, deserved or not.  The constant sex thrown at us is the same thing that created creatures like Pete and Lomax and instigated Rowan to go on the rampage.  So, while we’re being fed it, we’re also being told that it’s bad for us, but it really isn’t, but it is.

Night After Night After Night is competently made, though its pacing is a bit odd.  Oftentimes, adjacent scenes simply butt up against one another with no connective tissue between them.  It can be a little jarring, but if anything, it actually adds to the film’s schizophrenic ambience, continuing, in a way, to describe its juxtaposition of prurience and prudishness.  Even while being distinctly British, there are Giallo elements at play, as well, making for something of interest to devotees of that genre.  The killer wears a black leather trench coat.  There are POV shots of him stalking and stabbing his victims.  There is the plain lurid quality so prevalent in Gialli, including the close tying of violence with sex and how this affects people mentally.  However, the film is simplistic to the point of being somewhat plain, and the finale meanders a bit more than it excites.  Nevertheless, it kept my ass in my seat, and I never truly felt bored by it.  Maybe I’m just another sex maniac.

MVT:  The grittiness of the film, augmented by its low budget aesthetics, is appealing, especially for those of us for whom this is a big part of the attraction to films like this.

Make or Break:  There’s a character’s death rather early on that is not only surprising, but it’s also surprisingly well-staged, and it sends the story in a different direction than you might have initially expected.

Score: 6.75/10 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Six-String Samurai (1998)

Today, I would like to go the (more than usually) circuitous route to my introduction by lauding the work of writer Norman Partridge.  His writing is often compared with that of Joe R. Lansdale, and there are similarities to be found between the two, but Partridge’s work is a little leaner, meaner, and maybe even a little more ensconced in the realm of drive-in/exploitation fare (both authors excel at the Southern-fried, homespun, matter-of-fact aesthetic popular in such television series as Justified and the like, just to give you some idea).  I first came across Partridge in the pages of Cemetery Dance magazine with a story titled Bucket of Blood, a simple tale of two buddies, one bad decision, and the titular slot machine.  Since then, I’ve sought out everything I could from the man.  His stories can be as stripped down and straight ahead as ’59 Frankenstein, as emotionally gut-punching as The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists, or as ethereally abstruse (but no less satisfying) as Incarnadine, yet there is a beating, bleeding heart at the core of every word the man types.  His novel Slippin’ Into Darkness is one of the best haunting (notice, I didn’t say “ghost”) stories I’ve ever read.  It eats at me that the man isn’t more well-known or recognized than he is, and I’ve been known to yammer on about his work to anyone who will listen (and even to those who won’t; maybe moreso).  

In 2000, Partridge wrote The Crow: Wicked Prayer, and it has all the elements that he typically brings to the table.  That said, it is, in my opinion, the least of his works (and, all things considered, that’s still pretty impressive), possibly from being constrained by the franchise owners or by some editorial mandate (this is the way it plays out in my mind, at any rate).  The novel was adapted to film in 2005, and though I can’t recall having seen it, my recollection is it is considered by many to be the least of that series.  The film was directed by Lance Mungia, whose feature directorial debut was, of course, Six-String Samurai.  What does one have to do with the other?  I have no idea.  The point of this prolix prologue (and believe me, I can bloviate further) is this: go read some Norman Partridge.  You won’t be disappointed (I mean, as long as you don’t start with the Crow book; you can check that out after you’ve experienced a fuller flavor of the man’s rich bibliography).

In 1957, the Russkies dropped The Big One on America and took over.  Las Vegas has been redubbed Lost Vegas (personally, I like referring to it as Lost Wages, but that’s just me), and Elvis has ruled there as King for years.  But now the King is dead, and Lost Vegas needs some new royalty.  Rockers from all over (including the embodiment of Death itself [Stephane Gauger]) begin to converge on the city and duel it out along the way with weapons both bladed and stringed.  Eponymous Ronin Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon) knows he’s meant to be the new King, and, together with The Kid (Justin McGuire), he slouches towards the proverbial Bethlehem, his hour come round at last (apologies to Yeats).

So, let’s tackle the obvious.  Six-String Samurai considers the Samurai genre of film from a unique, fresh perspective, though it retains the swordplay rather than relying strictly on its musical wakizashi to settle violent disputes.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the usage of instruments in the film is little more than a stylistic flourish, since so negligible is the focus on it.  One would expect Buddy (referring, I do believe, to Buddy Holly) to meet up with various other rockers of the 50s and defeat them with his superior musical skills.  Yet, the only representative foe he encounters is a young Richie Valens stand-in (Pedro Pano), and even he is brought low by Buddy’s sword, not his guitar.  Other enemies include gangs like The Pin Pals (a bowling league gang), The Red Elvises (an actual band who also provide the film’s soundtrack), and a group of post-apocalyptic Cavemen who catapult gumballs (yes, really) and LPs at our protagonists during a chase scene so slow it makes the steamroller scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery look like Bullitt.  

That the film doesn’t feature musicians as antagonists more than it does is a testament to its disjointedness in the sense that it wants to be multi-generic to the point of collapse.  So, for as much as Six-String Samurai owes a debt to films like the Lone Wolf and Cub series (The Kid is given a line to cross over which he will have to put away his childish things in order to walk Buddy’s path), it owes an equal (or even greater) amount to the Western and the Spaghetti Western genres (particularly those starring Clint Eastwood, whom Falcon appears to be channeling), the Post-Apocalyptic genre (leaning more toward the Italian end of the spectrum for its more outré facets, though there’s also a heavy influence from The Warriors in the character of the narrating DJ and the various, colorful cliques), and even The Wizard of Oz and the filmography of Terry Gilliam.  

The notion of legacies is heavy in the film, as well.  First and foremost is the fact that Elvis (that wellspring from which so much rock ‘n roll sprang [and, yes, I get that Elvis had his share of influences going back decades further]) needs to be replaced as King.  His legacy is the music that guys like Buddy live by and the civilization that it supported.  As might be expected, The Kid then molds himself in the image of Buddy, preparing to inherit his mantle when the time comes (most tellingly displayed in the scene where The Kid mimics Buddy’s Tai Chi routine), to carry on the legacy handed down from Elvis to Buddy and so on.  The Kid doesn’t speak when he initially meets Buddy, yelling to get attention, creating a reverberating echo whenever he does it, indicative of the future power of The Kid’s voice (and the idea that the student often surpasses the master’s level, given time). The central conflict between Death and Buddy is about the legacy of rock being attacked by the malevolence of heavy metal (Death looks a lot like Slash from Guns ‘N Roses), which I found a bit odd, because I would have thought that the antithesis of Rock would have likely been something more along the lines of Techno or Disco or Polka, but Metal makes for more interesting visual characteristics (this is, of course, arguable).    

Thrown into this cinematic casserole is a simultaneous love for and satire of Fifties American society.  For as much time is spent reveling in the pop culture of that time (discussing whether a 1957 Chevy or a Plymouth is the better car, why a 1957 hollow body guitar is the way to go, the film’s setup itself, et cetera), we get things like the Cleavers (get it?), a nuclear (get it?) family that’s as apple pie and suburban as they come on the surface but who harbor some dark intentions underneath (go ahead and guess what their secret is; I’ll wait).  The Cleavers are so arch, so self-consciously a send up of the superficial attitudes of Fifties pop culture, they draw far too much attention to themselves, smacking the viewer over the head with “The Point” rather than simply stating it.  This is reinforced by the visual aesthetic of the film, which employs extreme wide angle lenses, high and low angle compositions, and handheld shots that zoom in on knowingly gauche faces pointedly gurning all over the place.

With that in mind, the film is distinctly good-looking much of the time, making fantastic use of both the locations and Kristian Bernier’s cinematographic skills.  My problem is that it becomes schizophrenic, slamming from studied composition to music video mugging in the space of less than a heartbeat.  I can understand why this approach was taken: the POV of a world gone off-kilter, emphasizing the outlandish characters who have risen up from the ashes of the nuclear holocaust but are still frozen in time.  And I think I could have forgiven this if the film’s tone wasn’t just as muddled.  Buddy and The Kid play (almost) straight men to the wacky antics of the world around them, though occasionally they ape it up, too.  Worse, in my opinion, is Death and his henchmen (why they didn’t have four of them like the Horsemen is beyond me), who look marvelously diabolical.  Nevertheless, they pass comments in ways meant to be funny but fall flat instead, reducing the characters as effective heavies.  To wit: Death admonishes a gang for not killing Buddy and stops mid-sentence to admire their flashy shoes.  Later, one of the henchmen states, “The boy makes him very uncool,” in reference to Buddy and The Kid’s relationship.  While things like this are specific and intentional for the film’s approach, it comes off a bit too “try hard” for my taste (I suppose you could view it through the prism of films like A Hard Day’s Night or Head, but I feel the narrative is much too linear for that).  I’ll gladly sing the praises of Six-String Samurai from both a visual and an ambition perspective.  But the tone just doesn’t work for me on this one.

MVT:  I’m going to have to give it to the visual style of the film.

Make or Break:  The film’s opening/title sequence is truly some great filmmaking and a nice introduction to the story and its main characters, equally evoking so many samurai duels in tall grass and homesteaders gunned down in cold blood while giving us its own spin on these tropes.

Score: 6.5/10   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Double Indemnity (1944)

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Run Time: 107 minutes

Today's movie has murder,  a complex web of lies,  a relentless investigator, a deadly and illicit affair, and tainted love.  Who knew that life insurance was so entertaining.

 The movie and the book by the same name take their content from the real life murder and insurance fraud committed by Ruth Snyder . The too long: didn't click version of the crime is Ruth Snyder married a man, Albert Snyder, who was in love more with his dead fiancee than his wife. Ruth meets Judd Gray, a corset salesmen, Ruth's lover, and co-conspirator in murder. With the aid of an unethical insurance salesmen, who later went to jail for forgery, Ruth was able to sign her husband up for life insurance with double indemnity. Then Ruth and Judd chloroformed and strangled Ruth's husband, staged a home break in, and then claimed the life insurance. However the police solve the crime and Ruth and Judd are found guilty and sentenced to death.

The movie adaptation takes the corset salesman and the insurance agent and makes them one character in Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). A successful insurance salesman who starts the movie by racing through late night Los Angles streets to get to work. Not because he's that loyal to the company but because he want to leave a dictaphone recording to Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), Pacific All Risk Insurance's fraud investigator, pointing out all the mistakes in his fraud investigation while he still able.

Towards the end of May Walter paid a visit to Mr. Dietrichson about a car policy that was about to expire. Mr. Dietrichson was not at home but his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) was home and she's interested in letting Walter behave like a smitten fool. In fact, she interested enough to invite him back the next day so Walter can meet her husband and resolve her husband's policy issues. The next day, Walter returns the next day to find that Mr. Dietrichson wasn't able to be there but Phyllis would be more than interested to be the object of Walter's obsession. This turns into an affair and leads Walter to consider turning his knowledge of insurance into a way to find wealth and love.

Walter's plan goes off with only a few problems. He gets Mr. Dietrichson to sign for life insurance without his knowledge, sets up how Mr. Dietrichson will die, and creates alibis for himself and Phyllis. Everything comes together the night Mr. Dietrichson goes to his university reunion. Walter and Phyllis enact Walter's plan, kill Mr. Dietrichson, and then wait for the life insurance to pay out. However chance, a few variables Walter missed, and Barton Keyes smelling insurance fraud, Walter's plan and life starts fraying at the seems.

This movie is a great starting point for anyone interested in cinema and literature. Movie wise this is a great example of the noir genre as well as a well constructed film. On the literature side, this was written by Raymond Chandler. Author of the Philip Marlowe novels and a major influence in the American hard boiled detective genre. Over all go watch this movie, they really don't make them like this anymore.

MVT: Being a fanboy of damn near anything noir, I found myself chain smoking, drinking cheap whiskey from the bottle, and enjoying every minute of it.

Make or Break: Fred MacMurray portrayal of Walter Neff leaves me torn between having a beer with the guy or punching the asshole in the face and then buying him a beer afterwards.

Score: 9.5 out of 10