Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, December 28, 2012

They Were Expendable: John Ford

As you may have noticed, I haven't had much time to update this blog recently. It's crunch time to complete my Master's Degree work at NYU. But I don't want to end the year without one last review. So here, in its completion, is a paper that I wrote for one of my classes on John Ford's great and underrated They Were Expendable.

Ten days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt appointed former aid Lowell Mellett as the government liaison between Washington and the Hollywood motion picture industry. In his letter of appointment, Roosevelt made it clear that the cinema was a vital part of both American society and the war effort: “The American motion picture is one of the most effective mediums in informing and entertaining our citizens.” What followed in the ensuing years was one of the most astonishing transformations of American cinema in history. The Hollywood machine began to churn out patriotic movies, shorts, and newsreels with incredible speed and enthusiasm. One of these films was John Ford’s They Were Expendable, the true story of a doomed flotilla of PT boats that participated in the catastrophic American retreat from the Philippines between December 1941 and May 1942. And yet, the film is a curiosity of World War Two cinema. While it’s true that the conception and production of They Were Expendable was emblematic of war-time Hollywood films, in many ways, Ford looked beyond the cinematic conventions of his time to make a statement that was both unique and unusual for the era.

First, They Were Expendable must be examined as an entry of the combat film genre. By 1944-1945, Hollywood had developed two new narrative formulas that eventually coalesced into distinct genres: the home-front melodrama and the combat film. The combat film developed its own themes, character archetypes, and plot devices. In a near exhaustive study, Jeanine Basinger identifies some of the most basic attributes of the combat film genre:

“The combat film from World War II can indeed generate such a list: the hero, the group of mixed ethnic types (O’Hara, Goldberg, Matowski, etc.) who come from all over the United States (and Brooklyn), the objective they must accomplish, their little mascot, their mail call, their weapons and uniforms.”

If we use these as the basis by which to classify examples of the combat film genre, then we must identify these within They Were Expendable. First we must examine “the hero.” There are actually two main protagonists in the film, both of which were based on the flotilla’s real life commanders: Lieutenant John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his second-in-command Lieutenant “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne). They are accompanied by their men, the “group of mixed ethnic types.” Together they struggle to accomplish not one, but two objectives. First, they must help defend American fortifications at the Philippines against Japanese attack. Second, they desperately try to prove the worth of the PT boats as a useful weapon to their superiors who remain skeptical about their capabilities. They have a “mascot,” a black cat named “Bad Luck” that they have to shoo off their boats before a mission. While there isn’t a traditional “mail call,” there are several scenes where dying or doomed men give letters to their superiors to send home. Their “weapons?” The PT boats. Their “uniforms?” Those of the US Navy.

But beyond these specifics, Basinger gives a much more sober definition of the combat film genre: “The combat film is about death and destruction, and how we have to fight to avoid it.” Indeed, at the core of They Were Expendable is the desperation felt by the American soldiers who realize that they are fighting a battle they are doomed to lose. The film watches as the PT boat flotilla is gradually annihilated by the Japanese. Friends and comrades are picked off one by one. They are shuffled from one base to another. By the end, the last boat is commandeered to deliver messages for the Army. Brickley and Ryan are stripped of their command and ordered to the states to train sailors. While the last shot displays a promise that “WE WILL RETURN,” it is clear that Brickley and Ryan will not.

While this may seem unusual for a film about American soldiers during World War Two, it is actually characteristic of internal trends within the combat film genre. In addition to defining the genre, Basinger categorizes these trends as well:

“In screening the films released between December 7, 1941, and August 8, 1945, I saw the combat genre emerge. The definition appeared out of the fog of war, as it were. From the development I observed in these films I discerned three divisions:

Introductory Stage: December 7, 1941 - December 31, 1942.
Emergence of the Basic Definition: 1943.
Repeat of the Definition: January 1, 1944 - December 31, 1945.”

The “Introductory Stage” represented a transition period within Hollywood where the film industry struggled to adapt to the nation being at war. The “Emergence of the Basic Definition” focused on military defeats as a mean of patriotic inspiration. Indeed, by 1943 the tide of the war had finally begun to slowly shift in the favor of the Allies after a number of hard-fought victories at battlefields like Stalingrad, Sicily, and Guadalcanal. But America was weary of fighting. Hollywood realized that the best way to keep America going was to galvanize them with tales of bitter defeats like Brickley’s doomed men in They Were Expendable.

They Were Expendable began shooting in February 1945. As such, it was part of the third period of the combat film genre: the “Repeat of the Definition.” If the “Emergence of the Basic Definition” looked towards the past with outrage, this period looked towards the past with sorrow, despair, and even disgust. Basinger explains:

“The films of 1944 tend to repeat this pattern, or to inspire by a sense of we ain’t licked yet. As American forces began winning the war, our films grew even darker. Even when we survive and take our objectives, the overall sense is one of death and sacrifice.”

Therefore, despite its somber content, They Were Expendable is not asymptomatic of its place in Hollywood history, at least in terms of content.

But as previously mentioned, Ford’s film had several idiosyncrasies which in hind-sight separate it from the rest of World War Two combat films. The first was the casting of John Wayne in a lead role where he played a serviceman. Between 1939-1945, John Wayne appeared in thirty films. During this time, he only played as a soldier seven times. Perhaps due to the fact that his studio prevented him from serving, Wayne seemed out of place among all of the authentic veterans on the set of They Were Expendable. Ford, Montgomery, cinematographer Joseph H. August, screenwriter Frank Wead, and second unit director James Havens had all served in the military and had brought that experience to the film.  

But perhaps the most bizarre thing about Wayne being cast as Ryan was that in the end, he didn’t get the girl. He entertains a brief flirtation with one of the Army nurses named Sandy Davyss after he is sent to the hospital with a case of blood poisoning. But as the Japanese get closer and closer, they drift apart and realize that they cannot be together again. This came as a massive blow against the public’s image of John Wayne at the time. By that point, Wayne had already entered America’s imagination as the embodiment of the American fighting man. To see him fail to “get the girl” would have been preposterous for audiences in the 1940s. By casting Wayne, the American Male, in this role, Ford seemed to be making a statement about the indiscriminate nature of war: in actual combat, not even legends are invincible.

But the other major factor that makes They Were Expendable seem out of place with other World War Two combat films was its portrayal of Asian-Americans and civilians. Not once did Ford actually show Japanese soldiers and sailor on-screen. He refused to demonize the Japanese a decision which was shocking for its time. As Anthony Navarro explains that “[Hollywood and the army] wanted to send the message that Japan, and the other Axis powers, were a loathsome group of villains who would wreak havoc upon civilization not stop unless America and the rest of the Allies stopped them.” What’s more, Ford seemed to have went through pains to depict the Asian-American civilians trapped in the middle of the conflict as sympathetic. In one of the film’s most emotional scenes, a Filipina lounge-singer tearfully sings “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” when it is announced that the United States has entered the war. By masking the Japanese as an autonomous, impersonal force and sympathizing with Asian Americans, Ford makes a much more powerful statement about man’s suffering during war-time than the other combat films of the era. Once more, Basinger succinctly summarizes the film’s distinction: “With its sense of dignity and truth and its rejection of false battle heroics, They Were Expendable is almost an anti-genre film - something it couldn’t be if the genre were not already fixed.

While They Were Expendable may have been a product of its time, it was nonetheless a singular accomplishment in director John Ford’s career. It was a combat film full of action and patriotic vigor that simultaneously condemned the very war it was depicting. It was a film about loss that didn’t demand violent retribution against the enemy. The central characters failed in almost all of their main objectives: they couldn’t stop the approaching Japanese and they couldn’t keep their unit together. Even one of the leads (played by non-veteran John Wayne) didn’t get the girl that he had spent most of the time courting. Truly, They Were Expendable was an oddity: a film that followed and broke the rules at the same time.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Editor's Note: You all may have noticed that activity has been...well...slow. That's because I'm doing my final projects and exams for my Film Studies Master's Degree. So, in the meantime, I've asked some of my friends to do guest reviews. Next up is ClassicBecky with a review of Robert Siodmak's THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE!!

In my part of the country, November shows its unique face with winds moaning and sighing through the trees in the dark of night, sudden storms of lightning and thunder and cold rain –- could there be a more perfect time for a movie of terror and suspense? If you don’t have such weather, you can experience it if you turn off the lights and watch The Spiral Staircase. Released in 1945, it is a story of a mad killer on the loose in turn of the century New England, raging storms and a house with plenty of shadows and fear at every turn. Imagine yourself on a stormy night with no electricity, moving through such a house with only a candle or dim lamp, and imagine making your way down a spiral staircase to a basement where horrors may lurk. Now you are in the mood.

The lovely Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a lonely, vulnerable girl who was rendered mute by a mysterious traumatic experience in her childhood. She is companion to Mrs. Warren, played by Ethel Barrymore, a strong-willed, cranky invalid confined to her bed but sharp and domineering. George Brent and Gordon Oliver play step-brothers Professor Warren (born of the father's first wife) and Steven Warren, (born of the invalid Mrs. Warren). Mrs. Warren believes, to her sorrow, that she has reason not to trust her son Steven, the prodigal son who turns up periodically. Whenever Steven is around, bad things happen. The supporting cast is perfection, with Kent Smith as the sensible Dr. Parry, whose visits to Mrs. Warren fit perfectly with his desire to see Helen, Elsa Lanchester as the amusingly drunken cook, Rhys Williams as her rather sullen caretaker husband, a young Rhonda Fleming as the Professor’s secretary, Blanch, and the redoubtable Sarah Allgood as Mrs. Warren’s long-suffering and often insulted nurse

Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) and Helen (Dorothy McGuire)

This household of complicated relationships, indeed the whole community, is shocked by the murders of young women, all with some kind of handicap. In a wonderful piece of film-making, we are allowed to see only the killer’s eye in extreme close-up as he hides in wait for his victim, and then see the victim through the killer’s eye as he stalks and kills. This perspective is chilling, and the music of composer Roy Webb heightens the chills.

Professor Warren (George Brent)

Steven Warren (Gordon Oliver)

As the mystery unfolds, it becomes apparent that the killer must be someone in the Warren household, with the mute Helen as his next possible victim. A great storm rages without, and fear rules within. The spiral staircase plays its part beautifully, shadowed, with each turn bringing unknown terrors.

Turn off lights, listen to the wind blow, and treat yourself to a suspenseful and frightening piece of film-making that stands the test of time. The Spiral Staircase will not disappoint.

Check out ClassicBecky's website: http://classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com/

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Editor's Note: You all may have noticed that activity has been...well...slow. That's because I'm doing my final projects and exams for my Film Studies Master's Degree. So, in the meantime, I've asked some of my friends to do guest reviews. Next up is the amazing Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci with a review of John Sturges' MYSTERY STREET!

Mystery Street:  The CSI of Its Day!
By Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci

John Sturges' taut, tense thriller combines a documentary style—including location shooting in Boston—with intense performances, striking photography, and a fresh-for-its-time approach to its murder mystery plot. Floozy Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling from Union Station; Ace in the Hole; The High and the Mighty, for which Sterling earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination) hijacks a car belonging to grieving father Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), whose baby had just died in labor.  But selfish Vivian couldn’t care less about the heartbroken Henry.  She only cares about finding and shaking down James Joshua Harkley (Edmon Ryan of The Breaking Point; The Americanization of Emily; Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz), the upper-crust father of her out-of-wedlock baby-in-progress.  

The next time we see Vivian, she’s a skeleton washed up on a Hyannis beach. Lt. Pete Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) enlists the help of Harvard forensic criminologist Dr. McAdoo (an avuncular yet no-nonsense Bruce Bennett, a favorite of mine since The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Dark Passage; Mildred Pierce).  The results are as riveting as a good episode of one of the "CSI" TV series. I liked the way the investigation and forensic evidence rang true, while the story by Sydney Bohem, Richard Brooks, and Leonard Spigelgrass (the latter got an Oscar nomination for Best Writing Motion Picture Story) kept me on the edge of my seat with twists and turns, including a monkey wrench thrown into the works by the late Vivian's blackmail-minded landlady, Mrs. Smerrling, well-played by sly, crafty scene-stealer Elsa Lanchester. 

When Henry is wrongly accused of Vivian’s murder and is thrown in prison, the ripple effect on him and his wife Grace (Sally Forrest of The Strip; Hard, Fast, and Beautiful; Vengeance Valley) is enough to put any family in a deep depression.  With Henry in jail, housewife Sally is broke; the crumbling of the Shanways’ finances were movingly and believably rendered. I found myself both empathizing with the Shanways and frustrated with Henry at the same time, thinking, “You dope, what good was it getting drunk and despondent?  Why the hell didn't you stay with Grace in the hospital when your baby died, instead of going off in your misery to get drunk at ‘The Grass Skirt’? Sheesh, you think you're the only one mourning?!” 

The performances are uniformly excellent, although I was particularly impressed with Montalban. Having grown up watching Montalban in relatively lighthearted fare like TV's Fantasy Island, I was impressed at how good he was as tough, cynical Pete, the kind of cop who thinks a suspect is guilty until proved innocent. Even when I was angry at Pete for refusing to believe Grace when she swears Henry's innocent, I could feel his frustration when he realizes that, after all his hard investigative work, his airtight case against the accused man has crucial cracks in it after all. There's also a great moment when the smug Harkley notices Pete's accent (smoothly explained away as Pete being from the Portuguese district) and starts trying to pull rank on Pete, class-wise. There are even some witty moments, like when Pete and his partner end up walking all over Harvard Square trying to find out where the heck the department of legal forensics is.  In the past, this all-but-neglected post-war film noir gem occasionally turned up on TCM, but now it’s included in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume Four.  If you’re interested, it’s available from Amazon.com!


Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci, who writes fiction as “Dorian Tenore” to give the world’s typesetters a break, is Communications Director for the sales/leadership coaching firm Performance Based Results.  She was a researcher for David Hajdu’s books Positively 4th Street  and The Ten-Cent Plague (2008). She writes about suspense movies and fiction on her blog site Tales of the Easily Distracted (http://doriantb.blogspot.com/). Dorian is also marketing her suspense novel The Paranoia Club; wish her luck! <smile>

Friday, November 16, 2012

Guest Post: GOMORRAH

Editor's Note: You all may have noticed that activity has been...well...slow. That's because I'm doing my final projects and exams for my Film Studies Master's Degree. So, in the meantime, I've asked some of my friends to do guest reviews. First up is the always charming Page with a review of Matteo Garrone's GOMORRAH, a film that I dearly love. So, without further ado, let's go!

An inside look at Italy's modern day crime families.

This foreign film with it's Italian subtitles was one I had read about while searching for lesser known films in this genre. I decided to give it a go after reading the positive reviews. Yes, it's one of those films you stumble upon then tell all of your friends about ASAP even though most of them won't find the film as appealing. 

Gomorrah was initially released in Italy with a limited release worldwide, grossing only $34,861,000 but garnering BAFTA, Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. while winning three Italian Golden Globes.  

Salvatore Abruzzese as Toto
Simone Sacchettino as Simone
Salvatore Ruocco as Boxer
Vincenzo Fabricino as Pitbull
Vincenzo Altamura as Gaetano
Italo Renda as Italo
Francesco Pirozzi as Michele

DIRECTOR: Mateo Garrone

While the film follows the lives of five different families their lives don't all intersect although they're all impacted in a negative way by Camorra, Italy's largest crime syndicate.

If you're used to, a fan of films where crime is glamorized and the gangsters walk around in $5,000 suits, sporting Rolexs while living like King's off of the proceeds of their criminal enterprises, you'll be disappointed.  It's gritty, a tour of the slums of Naples. While the tourists flock to the cities nicely scrubbed, paved streets to their overpriced hotels, cruise ships dock for World travelers to experience Naples beautiful beaches and local culture we get a glimpse of what goes on in the back alley's, dilapidated housing as the forgotten, ignored try to survive under the thumb of Camorra. Either by force or for the need of approval. Every crime family has it's hierarchy although nobody is treated with any empathy or compassion. Take Goodfellas and turn it on it's head.

In the opening scene we see your typical tough guys in a salon getting their tan on, nails done.

Our tough guys take a break from busting heads and hustling.

Everyone's joking, having a good laugh. They all look pretty harmless while obviously over tanned.

The last thing this guy needs is a lamp or UV exposure of any kind.

Things quickly turn though as guns come out  and we quickly see who the bad guys are as everyone in the salon is mowed down. Pretty sure the other guys were on their turf or equally as shady but who's to say this early. I'll give it the Scarface rating as far as violence for now.

The salon quickly turns into a blood bath. Five overly tan thugs down and a few dozen to go.

Still reeling from the opening scene we go to a couple of teen boys, Marco and Ciro who roam around the slums scheming, looking for a way to make some quick cash, get some street cred while clashing with their parents who are just trying to keep food on the table and their kids from falling through the cracks.

"Naples youth, out trying to turn a buck and stay alive in the slums."

They look as tired and broken as the shacks they call home. I find myself rooting for them but I get the feeling this won't end well.

It's time to shakedown the locals. This apartment is actually pretty nice considering everything else we've seen so far.

We go to a couple of college graduates who find themselves trying to work their way up the Camorra ranks. They make their money by disposing of the city's toxic waste by dumping it onto the outskirts of Naples. While most crime syndicates leave casualties in their wake its kept within the confines of the criminals, not so in this instance and I find this the most disturbing. No guns or brutality, just exposure of cancer to innocent victims.

The outskirts of Naples where toxic waste dumps are the norm and only the brave or desperate wander about. It looks more like Chernobyl than a tourist destination.

We get a glimpse into the life of a struggling designer who uses sweat shops to get his clothing made. Camorra has its hand print on it so instead of a feel good story we're jerked back into the reality of how desperate everyone is. Nobody gets a break here regardless of how hard they try to pull themselves up out of poverty. I really don't want to give much of the plot away or even get into how brutal the 'top tier' Mafiosos are.  They're fat slobs who oversee their little kingdom. We get a few more gun battles over turf, our teens on a downward spiral, the smart college kids using their chemical knowledge to reek havoc on their community. The dumping of waste never stops, the violence escalates and we get a few confusing scenes before winding our way back to the slobs and their total lack of compassion for who's lives they're destroying. 
Our college graduates use their chemical knowledge to sludge through manure for fertilizer. Luckily they aren't making bombs although dumping toxic waste to line their pockets is bad enough.
There really are no happy endings here but I applaud the filmmakers as this story needed to be told. It has the feel of a documentary with superb cinematography. Do yourselves a favor and see this before you take a trip to Naples. You'll never look at it the same way, good or bad. With the Camorra crime organization having it's roots all the way back to the 18th century you would think with time we would see a bit more humanity and as we watch we realize this is going on in Italy as I type this. While Camorra is known for being a 'secret' society its obvious that Government, the local police turn a blind eye to the drug dealing that affects the poor, the toxic waste strewn about that affects the working class and the constant violence that rains down upon anyone in the way. As the racketeering, gun running, and armed robberies fueled by these thugs halts any dreams that anyone might have to have a better life. Just a stones throw away from Mt. Vesuvius where unsuspecting tourists gather to take in its magnificent beauty. Eye awakening and raw!

Check out Page's website: http://myloveofoldhollywood.blogspot.com/

Monday, October 29, 2012

Lone Star

Directed by John Sayles
The United States of America

Forty years ago, Rio County Sheriff Charlie Wade vanished. A cruel, sadistic man, he took a perverse pleasure in extorting and terrifying the townsfolk. He was last seen in a dark bar having an argument with his new deputy Buddy Deeds. Wade had attempted to use him as a pawn in a drug pick-up. But he didn’t count on Buddy’s integrity. He stormed out of the bar and was never seen again. Nobody seemed to care much when he (and $10,000 from Rio County’s public coffer) disappeared. Buddy would follow Wade as sheriff for the next thirty years, becoming a beacon of justice and integrity until his death. If anyone might have had any suspicions about Wade’s fate and Buddy’s sudden rise to power...well, small towns may have long memories, but they also know when to leave well enough alone.

The last confrontation between Wade (left) and Buddy (right).

But Rio County’s convenient case of selective amnesia is soon challenged when two off-duty soldiers accidentally discover a skeleton in the desert with Wade’s old sheriff’s badge rusting away in the nearby dirt. With the specter of a 40 year old murder hovering over the countryside, none other than Buddy’s son, Sheriff Sam Deeds, is called upon to investigate. So begins John Sayles’ Lone Star, a magnificent film that isn’t so much a murder mystery as an exploration into the very soul of a community plagued with centuries of racial tension, violence, and unpleasant memories that refuse to fade away.

It seems that everyone in Rio County has a story. There’s Otis Payne, the owner of the bar that serves as a backdrop to Wade’s last appearance. Though he seems kindly enough, he harbors a lingering sadness over abandoning his son, Delmore, when he was just a child. That child, now grown up, is the new commander of the local Army base. He has to deal with local recruits who see the Army not as a patriotic calling, but a chance to escape Rio County’s economic miasma. Bitter over his father’s absence, Delmore has reigned such a terrible influence over his own son that he has become a stuttering, nervous wreck. Just like the rest of Rio County, one generation of pain fosters the next.

Delmore's son.

Then there’s Pilar Cruz, Sam’s high school crush. After being forcibly separated by their families, Pilar would go on to get married, have two children, and become a teacher. Now the husband is dead, the children rebellious teenagers, and the teaching position mired in local politics over what should and should not be included in their textbooks. The necessity of the case forces Sam to come knocking on her door, seeing as Wade had chillingly murdered her mother’s husband during a routine traffic stop over 40 years ago. Are they glad to see each other after all of this time? As Pilar points out, “Nobody stays in love for twenty-three years.”

And then there are the local Seminole Indians, the young Chicanos, and the disenfranchised outsiders wasting away at bars and in immaculate living rooms complete with big screen TVs. Sayles glides from one group to the next, dissecting the monsters lurking behind the different ghettos and neighborhoods. In one scene Delmore interrogates a young, black soldier who tested positive during an unannounced drug test. The ensuing exchange comes as close as anything in the film to uncovering the true nature of Rio’s racial scars.

“I’m just trying to understand how someone like you thinks.”
“You really wanna know?”
“It’s their country. This is one of the best deals they offer.”

Make no mistake, Rio County is not a melting pot. The different races tolerate each other because they have to live there. After all, where else do they have to go? 

John Sayles, one of the true titans of American independent cinema, is at his very best here in Lone Star. Ever since his early days with films like Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) and The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Sayles has demonstrated masterful skill in creating authentic, believable characters that capture the essence of their environments. These are not characters that are trotted out to recite a few lines in order to move the plot along. Delmore’s relationship with his son, for example, adds almost nothing to the central narrative concerning Wade’s murder. And yet, I couldn’t imagine the film without it. And yes, the mystery is finally resolved. But Sayles doesn’t linger on it. Instead, he is much more interested with how this revelation effects Sam’s relationship with Pilar. This is a film about people. As Pilar wisely suggests, “All that other stuff, all that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

裸の島 (The Naked Island)

Kaneto Shindō

On a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea, a long path winds from the shore to a large field of sweet potatoes. Every day, two tired figures can be seen lugging massive buckets of water up and down the path over and over and over again. Once at the top, they carefully water each individual sweet potato sprout. But their buckets only provide enough water for a few plants. So, once again, they must climb down the path, board a boat, travel to another island, refill their buckets with fresh water, and return. It is harsh, back-breaking work. But for this husband and wife, nothing less than the livelihood of their family depends on it. They have two young sons, both of which are not strong enough yet to help with the crops. So every day they are ferried to school while their parents continue their monotonous, thankless work. Such is life for the family in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island, one of the great treasures of 60s Japanese cinema.

After the explosion of Japanese cinema into the international marketplace in the 50s, Shindō was largely overshadowed by such luminaries as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. But he still managed to score a number of critical hits overseas with such films as Children of Hiroshima (1952) and Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1959). The former was the first Japanese film to confront the horrors of the atom bomb attacks during World War Two while the latter was based on the true story of a fishing boat that accidentally got hit by further atomic testing near Bikini Atoll in 1954. But the end of the 50s saw Shindō with almost no money left. So he scraped together what little money he could into one last project: The Naked Island. The film was a daring gamble. It didn’t focus on politics or hot-button issues. It focused on only a handful of characters. And, most importantly, it contained no spoken dialogue.

Don’t misunderstand what I mean when I say that The Naked Island doesn’t have any dialogue. The film has a soundtrack. But Shindō fills the film with “in-between” moments. We assume that the family talks to each other. But Shindō focuses on scenes of extreme toil and tedium. After decades of living on the same island and raising the same family, what is there to say while monotonously watering the same field of sweet potatoes? Take one scene where the husband and wife lug massive buckets of water up to their fields. The wife stumbles and spills her water. The husband is furious. They will have to make an extra trip to the mainland to make up for the loss. He knows it. She knows it. In anger, he smacks her in the face. But then, without a word, he helps her up and the two continue up the hill. Their silent communication is more powerful than anything they could have said.

But the absence of dialogue does more than force Shindō to present the film in purely visual terms. The silence and monotony forces the audience to re-evaluate the family’s relationship with their surroundings. Allow me to explain: early in the film Shindō cuts between the mother and father watering their crops and the waves washing things ashore their island. As we move back and forth between the two, we start to see them as equal and essential parts of the environment. Just as the waves must crash, the family must toil and suffer.

But that isn’t to suggest that The Naked Island is completely bleak. There are small moments of merciful joy. One of the sons catches a fish and eagerly presents it to his weary parents. Despite the day’s hardships, the father smiles and playfully throws him into the sea. The mother beams and breaks into laughter. The family takes the fish to the mainland where they sell it to a merchant. With the money, they treat themselves to a big meal at nice restaurant. Life may be hard, but it is not without its pleasures.

It’s tempting to describe The Naked Island as a quasi-documentary. But to do so would be to miss Shindō’s purpose. After all, there are inaccuracies in how the family lives. For instance, sweet potatoes do not need to be constantly watered every day. What’s important to Shindō isn’t the crop itself, but the demands that it places on the family. Without the crop, they die. They work so they can live. But can you call what they do living? I believe that the answer can be found in the tragic last quarter of the film where one of the sons gets sick. They rush to get a doctor. But the trip to the mainland is long, much too long. When they finally return the son is dead. After the funeral, we see the husband and wife continue their thankless task of watering their sweet potatoes. But suddenly, the wife freezes. She reaches down and begins to rip the precious plants out of the ground in a frenzy. Finally, she collapses and lets forth a piercing, haunting shriek of anguish. Watch the husband’s reaction. It may surprise you. It may infuriate you. It may make you laugh. But it is the key to understanding Shindō’s intentions. Living is a burden. But we survive because...well...we must.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer)

Directed by Metin Erksan

Film, despite its wide proliferation throughout the world, is a tragically delicate medium. Unless it is gently cared for and preserved, film negatives will deteriorate in a matter of decades. Film enthusiasts and scholars mourn the cold statistics which pronounce that only 10 to 15 percent of silent cinema has survived until today. Therefore, the rediscovery and restoration of lost films is a cause for celebration. But silent films from the cinema’s infancy are not the only ones at risk. Many more recent films have fallen victim to political repression and destruction. One such cinematic treasure was Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer. Despite its enthusiastic reception in the West (even winning the 14th Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear for Best Film), it was swiftly suppressed by the Turkish government for giving the “wrong” image of Turkey. Never mind the fact that in Erksan’s film evil is punished and justice prevails. The hammer fell and Dry Summer was locked away and forgotten about for 45 years. And yet, like Lazarus, Dry Summer has emerged from its tomb thanks to a rigorous restoration by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. Now, once again, the world can witness this masterpiece of Turkish cinema.

It all begins with two brothers. The eldest, Osman, decides quite suddenly one day that he will dam up the spring that forms on their property, thereby choking all of the other villagers downstream. The decision comes as quite a shock to the younger brother, Hassan. After all, Hassan explains, water is the earth’s lifeblood. You can’t own water. But Osman doesn’t care. The water may belong to everyone, but the spring is on their property, ergo anything it produces belongs to them. Unable to dissuade his older brother, Hassan and his beautiful wife Bahar are forced to help build the dam.

Naturally, this invites the wrath of their neighbors. Without the water, their tobacco crops will die. The villagers appeal to the court system who quickly agree that Osman’s actions are illegal. The dams are destroyed and the water flows freely once more. But literally within days Osman appeals to an even higher court who supports his claim of ownership over the spring.

Meanwhile, Osman lusts for Bahar, spying on her via a peephole while she undresses and makes love. Erksan and his cinematographer Kriton İlyadis frequently highlight Osman’s desire by cleverly framing him so that he is never far away from Bahar. If she is in the bottom foreground, Osman is in the high background. Part of the pleasure in watching Dry Summer is reveling in the geometric variations that such shots provide within the frame’s diegetic space.

An example of Erksan's compositions with Bahar left foreground, Hassan middle background, Osman right mid-ground.

It isn’t long before Osman seizes on a chance to get Hassan out of the way so he can have Bahar all to himself. When a small group of villagers attack Osman’s dam one night, he manages to shoot and kill one of their number. When the police arrive, Osman manages to convince Hassan to take the blame because “they’ll give a younger man a lesser sentence.” So Hassan is sentenced to eight years in prison. Unbeknownst to Bahar, Osman destroys all of Hassan’s letters. Osman swoops down on Bahar in her grief, trying even more explicitly to seduce her. His passions reach their highest point during an astonishingly erotic scene where Bahar is bitten by a snake and Osman sucks the poison from her wound with extreme gusto.

When word gets out that someone with Hassan’s surname was murdered in prison, Osman tells Bahar that her husband is dead. After torturing Bahar emotionally and psychologically for so long she gives to Osman’s advances. I won’t reveal the ending for two reasons. First, most of you have probably already figured out the twist. Second, I don’t want to rob anyone of the pleasure of the final few scenes. It’s rare to see a film with such a violent climax that doesn’t seem forced or unnecessary. The final denouement and confrontation are arise organically.

This may be cloying sentimentalism bordering on hyperbole, but I truly believe Osman to be one of the best antagonists of European cinema. He isn’t a villain that audiences love to hate like Hannibal Lector or Darth Vader. He doesn’t have a grand scheme or plan. He has no reason for hoarding his water. The summer may be dry, but at no point is it indicated that there will not be enough water for everyone. Osman builds the dam for one reason: because he can. Whenever he is confronted, he gives the same excuse that it is his water and he can do whatever he wants with it. There are several moments when Hassan and Bahar rebel and tear down the dam. But Osman has an almost preternatural ability to suddenly appear whenever they do so he can put the dam back up. During one sequence Osman is attacked by several armed villagers. It appears that the unarmed Osman is doomed. But then the scene shifts and we see a battered but otherwise confident Osman re-appear at his house. How did he survive the attack? It’s never explained. Don’t misunderstand me: there is no mystical or supernatural element to Dry Summer. The film instead invokes the techniques and tones of Neo-realism. Osman just has an uncanny (and unfortunate) knack for being in the right place at the right time.

But Osman is not the only reason why Dry Summer stands as one of Turkey’s greatest cinematic triumphs. Take, for instance, the spell-binding black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always believed that black-and-white photography can be more inherently colorful then even the brightest Technicolor when put in the hands of a master. The Turkish countryside in Dry Summer is brought to vivid life in Erksan and İlyadis’ hands. Rarely has water seemed so beautiful and refreshing. Let us not be like Osman and hoard Dry Summer to ourselves. This is a film that needs to be seen, to be respected, to be cherished.

The entire restored film is available to view for free on youtube. Below is the link to the first part of the film. For some reason I can't embed it to this page.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend)

Wim Wenders
West Germany, France

In a ratty apartment in Germany, an elderly painter mutters to himself as he stares at his latest creation. Surrounded by disheveled newspapers and dirty brushes, he inspects the painting, first covering his right eye, then his left. A knock is heard. “Who is it?” “It’s Ripley.” He pauses. “The door’s open.” A man in a dark suit walks in and tips a cowboy hat resting on his brow. The man hands the painter a wad of bills. “I sold one painting and ready to sell another one.” “How much?” “That’s 2,000 dollars for you.” The man in the cowboy hat walks around the painter’s apartment. “Now this...I think I can get even more for this one. I could use two of these in six months.” “In six months I can paint five. Try to sell five.” “Two. Don’t be too busy for a dead painter.” The painter looks at the other man, points, and chuckles. “Do you wear that hat in Hamburg?” The other man takes off the hat, briefly looks at it, and smiles. “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?”

What, indeed, is wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg? Particularly when the cowboy in question is Tom Ripley, a wealthy American criminal who helps run an art forgery ring. A suave spectre of the European art world, Ripley has refined his criminal activities to a fine science. He attends art auctions where he bids on forged paintings done by the German, driving the price sky-high. He pockets the extra money and repeats the process all over again. It is a perfect system. Even Jesse James would be impressed.

In fact, the impetus of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend isn’t a failing of Ripley’s system, but a personal slight. During one auction, Ripley is introduced to Jonathan Zimmermann, a picture framer suffering from a rare blood disease. Ripley extends his hand, but Jonathan rejects it with a curt “I’ve heard of you” and walks away.

Ripley’s hand shrivels at Jonathan’s insult. “You mustn’t take that seriously,” an auctioneer quickly chimes, “Zimmermann’s under a lot of pressure...he’s ill. A blood disease. Little hope of recovery.” But Zimmermann’s fate is sealed. In a matter of days he will be embroiled in a terrible murder plot, pursued by gangsters. And it started, not with a crime, but with an empty handshake.


Perhaps it seems odd that such a small moment would ignite an entire film. It happens so fast that it is easy to miss. But The American Friend is a film of manners and style, knowing glances and seemingly empty faces. It is a love letter and subliminal condemnation of American culture. For Wenders, the style becomes the substance.

For those familiar with Tom Ripley, the main character of Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripliad,” a pentalogy of crime novels about a refined yet amoral criminal, what happens next to Zimmermann is shocking, but not unexpected. A French criminal named Raoul Minot asks Ripley if he could assassinate a rival gangster. Ripley refuses, but suggests an alternative. He orchestrates a plot wherein Zimmermann is convinced that his blood condition has worsened and that he only has a short amount of time left. Once Zimmermann is completely horrified of his “impending” death, Minot swoops in and offers him a massive sum of money in exchange for carrying out the assassination. Desperate to provide his wife and son with some money to survive on, Zimmermann agrees and murders the gangster in a subway station.

However, things are complicated when Minot reveals to Ripley that he was so pleased with Zimmermann’s work that he plans on using him again. Only this time, the murder will take place on a train with a garrote. Ripley is horrified at this development. See, Ripley had visited Zimmermann’s shop before and after the first murder in order to get a picture framed. An unlikely friendship grew between the two, all the while with Zimmermann completely unaware of Ripley’s machinations. So Ripley interrupts the second murder and dispatches the target himself. Afterwards Ripley reveals the truth to Zimmermann, leading to one of the film’s best scenes. Zimmermann offers Ripley the money for the hit. Ripley refuses and states, “I would like to be your friend, but friendship isn’t possible.” But their reconciliation is cut short when more gangsters arrive to kill them both for Ripley’s intervention. 

On the surface it might seem like The American Friend is merely a hollow adaption of Highsmith’s novel, especially when compared to the critical darling Ripley’s Game (2002), also based on the same novel. The 2002 film by Liliana Cavani focused more on the character of Ripley, portrayed by John Malkovich in a career-defining performance, than on his relationship with Zimmermann. Malkovich played Ripley as a sterile sociopath akin to Hannibal Lector without the sense of humor and cannibalistic craving for human flesh. But I find Dennis Hopper’s performance in The American Friend more intriguing. I still don’t quite understand Malkovich Ripley’s motivation for saving Zimmermann. But I can easily accept and sympathize with Hopper Ripley’s change of heart. He is a man so used to respect that Zimmermann’s insult seemed emasculating. I think it was no coincidence that Wenders framed Ripley’s rejected handshake as a deflating phallus.

This emasculation is further driven home when one examines Wenders’ thematic inspirations. Heavily inspired by American cinema, Wenders’ Ripley-Zimmermann relationship evokes hard-boiled film noir and 50s melodrama where masculinity was closely guarded and defended in the face of social and familial pressures. Malkovich Ripley saved Zimmermann because that’s what the story needed to continue. Hopper Ripley saved Zimmermann because he realized it was the right thing to do. So what, indeed, is wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg? One thing’s for sure: there’s more to it than Ripley’s hat.