Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928) – 4/5
In effect remaking his own Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Lang interlards rip-roaring action pieces—the most impressive among them, a third-act train wreck—with a pretty conventional “romance between opposing sides” subplot, which never takes center stage long enough to derail the film’s frenetic forward momentum. The plot machinations, involving secret agent 326’s attempts to bring down the empire of banker/criminal mastermind Haghi (seemingly wheelchair-bound Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the film’s unofficial Mabuse stand-in, a definite precursor to Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove), are intricate and largely irrelevant, mere excuses for Lang to indulge his technical wizardry. More intriguing, if ambiguous, at a thematic level, Spies contains no fewer than three suicide scenes: In the first, Dr. Matsumoto (Lupu Pick), disgraced head of Japanese diplomatic security, commits hara-kiri in the midst of a deco Buddhist temple. (One of Lang’s early films was Hara-kiri , based on Madame Butterfly.) The second is a cruel little vignette—as he’s about to be apprehended, one of Haghi’s henchmen swallows a cyanide capsule and Lang’s camera lingers on him as the poison take gruesome effect. In the stunning finale, Haghi is performing onstage disguised as a clown (in which disguise he had infiltrated 326’s organization), when he’s surrounded at every turn by armed agents. Rather than surrender, he puts a pistol to his head and fires. The audience, unaware this isn’t part of the routine, applauds wildly and the curtain comes down—a terrific bit of unpretentious self-reflexivity.
Shoot the Moon (Alan Parker, 1982) – 4/5
Plumbing darker regions than the similarly-themed (and overrated) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Parker and screenwriter Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Melvin and Howard ) craft an unsentimental marital discord drama that pulls no punches (literally or figuratively) as the relationship between an award-winning writer (Albert Finney) and the mother of his four daughters/muse/helpmeet (Diane Keaton) circles the drain. Finney delivers another of his quietly tumultuous, fine-grained performances. Keaton has never been better, ranging effortlessly from the slightly befuddled charm on display in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) to the guarded, neurotic, emotional damage she evinced in Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mister Goodbar (also 1977). As the couple drift apart, they take younger lovers (Karen Allen, Peter Weller), only entangling the skein of mutual recrimination and jealousy, building to a brutal demolition derby of a climax and a terrific, ambiguous final shot. Cinematographer Michael Seresin—who collaborated often with Parker—gets a lot of mileage out of the rolling, verdant hills and fields of Marin County.
Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934) – 4/5
Like His Girl Friday (1940)—and unlike Bringing Up Baby (1938), seemingly content with pitching its sight gags at the level of Katherine Hepburn tripping over tree limbs, or bringing down a heap of Brontosaurus bones (twice!)—this madcap farce has an edge, even if it isn’t sufficiently focused (or outraged) enough to count as genuine social satire. Since there’s a showbiz romance under dissection, the rapid-fire pacing and line-delivery are appropriately pitched at histrionic-hysterical levels, laying bare the obsessive, manipulative lengths Svengali-like theater producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore, twitting his self-image for all it’s worth) will go to in order to win back his ersatz diva, Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), née Mildred Plotka, who—weary of his ceaseless hissy-fits and passive-aggressive dominance (he hires a private eye to tap her phone)—absconds for the West Coast and movie stardom. Granted its stage-bound origin, it’s ironic indeed that Hawks’ film insistently asserts the Great White Way as the sole repository of Art and Truth and Beauty, all the while dismissing the populist (therefore vulgar) film industry with a sneer.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951) – 3.5/5
Coordinating two vastly different mythological systems, the Greek legend of Pandora (Zeus’ revenge for the blaze Prometheus burgled) and the German Romantic-operatic Flying Dutchman (with its typically Wagnerian blurring of love and death), Lewin—who produced, wrote and directed—and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, exploiting to the hilt the film’s Technicolor and Cinemascope, invest Pandora with staggering visual elegance and intelligence. Set and largely filmed on location in coastal Spain, the story concerns capricious expatriate Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), bored and morose despite an abundance of suitors ranging from a race-car driving Brit to a murderous matador. One night, on a whim, she swims out in the buff to a yacht anchored in the bay, where she encounters brooding Dutch mariner Hendrick van der Zee (James Mason) toiling away at a symbolic portrait of Pandora (the mythical figure) which naturally bears an uncanny resemblance to Pandora Reynolds. (Bear in mind, Lewin had recently directed the excellent black-and-white adaptation of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray .) A flashback reveals Hendrick to be in fact the legendary Flying Dutchman, doomed to wander the seas since he murdered wife in a fit of jealousy. Only the redemptive love of a woman willing to die for him can bring his torment to an end. While the film veers more than slightly into the melodramatic, Lewin and Cardiff fabricate a surplus of sensuous textures and surfaces, and elicit an abiding feel for the irrational and dreamlike, which works to deepen and complicate the material. In hands-down my favorite scene, Pandora beguiles Stephen, the race-car designer, into shoving his beloved prototype over a cliff. As the vehicle goes airborne, Lewin cuts quickly to Gardner lunging into the camera, followed by an astounding depth-of-field shot of Gardner writhing in ecstasy on the ground at cliff’s edge while, far below, the car plunges into the frothing breakers.
The Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966) – 4.5/5
“Evil sword, evil soul” pretty well sums it up. Amoral samurai Ryunosuke (then-ubiquitous Tatsuya Nakadai) kills an aged Buddhist pilgrim he comes across praying for death at a mountaintop shrine; murders the husband of a woman he has raped, in a competition meant to be a simple exercise; sells his sword to the highest bidder; until, finally, having gone quietly insane, he slashes his way through thirty or forty men inside a burning geisha house. Along the way, Toshiro Mifune turns up as a rival swordsman. But the devil’s in the details, as always; in this case they add up to the ritualized violence of bushido, the samurai code. Okamoto’s film disburses its aesthetic means—the precisely choreographed camera movements and razor-honed editing, along with the more obvious splendors of the monochrome Tohoscope widescreen cinematography—with a rigor equal to its observation of the minute gestural and body-linguistic protocol employed in hand-to-hand combat: the slight turn of a foot, the precise angle of a downturned sword. The finale is awe-inspiring: ghostly Expressionist shadows steal along shifting layers of screens and slatted blinds and, once the carnage begins, gouts of blood spatter the walls, the violence grows progressively more explicit, until the narrative judders to a halt with a freeze-frame of Ryunosuke in the heat of battle, his fate left undecided.
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2008) – 4/5
13 Assassins represents a bit of a conundrum for the evaluative-minded: on the one hand, it’s a faultlessly constructed, ferocious and relentless “end of an era” swan-song, mourning the same vanished samurai ethos (albeit to different effect) as Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom; on the other, it’s such a straight-shooter, so earnest and irony-free in its acceptance of honor, discipline and self-sacrifice—the core values extolled by both film and worldview—it’s hard to believe the maverick auteur responsible for the batshit-level craziness evident throughout Ichi the Killer, let alone Visitor Q (both 2001), helmed this restrained, more or less conventional jidaigeki.
The film opens on a high-angle shot of a lone samurai kneeling in the middle of an otherwise empty courtyard, as he slowly opens his kimono, withdraws his “short sword” from its scabbard and carefully places its tip against his abdomen. Cut to a three-quarter profile shot in medium-closeup: with the gut-wrenching violence out of frame, we only hear the terrible sounds of the blade slicing through flesh, muscle and viscera. The sudden shift in viewpoint indicates Miike’s method throughout 13 Assassins: It’s certainly not a bloodless film by any stretch of the imagination but, compared to the “Glasgow smile” sequence in Ichi, say, it’s practically PG-13…
Miike and his screenwriter don’t dabble in any moral relativism here. The thirteen samurai, with the single exception of the hunter, Kiga, they come across mid-mission, are all honorable men. Their nemesis, Lord Naritsugu, is cruel and callow. (The bit that cinches his “baddie” status, involving a woman whose limbs have been hacked off and tongue cut out, so that she can only communicate her message, TOTAL MASSACRE, with a calligraphy brush clenched between her teeth, an image cited by several critics as eminently a “Miike flourish,” was lifted whole-cloth from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.)
Early interior scenes appear to have been shot using only the ambient, flickering lamp- and candlelight (reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon ). The climactic Battle of Ochiai takes up the entire third act, some thirty or forty minutes, and it’s a bravura sequence: Beginning with a cunning array of booby-traps and moveable barricades, the 13 samurai corral their enemies, who now vastly outnumber them, within the deserted village. Scurrying from rooftop to rooftop, the assassins fire flurries of arrows into the ranks of Naritsugu’s retainers (echoing Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood , one of many references, formal, thematic and content-based, throughout), and it isn’t long before a protracted, intricately choreographed sword-and-lance showdown ensues.
Of course, as with the Korean revenger, I Saw the Devil (2010), Miike wants it both ways: to dazzle and arouse the audience with his technical prowess, and then move them to lament the senseless, wanton waste of it all. It doesn’t work here, either. There are other points of comparison: both antagonists end by breaking down, admitting the crippling fear that torments them, venting their desperate need to live in defiance of social norms. Both men lose their leads (in the dual sense of that phrase).
Which is not to say that both films are thus equal, or even the same. Neither director lacks for style. But only Miike brings a classical rigor and impeccable formal aesthetic to the table. And that just about makes up for the lapses in thematic coherence that plague the finale.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, 1958) – 4/5
One-time cause célèbre of the French New Wave, “Tash” was a cartoonist, gag writer and animator before he turned his media-saturated sensibilities to the feature film, most notably directing several films that put the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy duo through their paces (Artists and Models  being the standout), before helming the first six Jerry Lewis solo films, which run the gamut from drab to droll. But, without a doubt, Rock Hunter remains Tashlin’s masterpiece, a corrosive satire of the Advertising Age, “medium massage” and commodity fetishism, masquerading as featherweight farce.
The formalist hijinx begin before the opening credits have even started: In the bottom left-hand corner of the Cinemascope screen, a tiny Tony Randall plays the theme music on miniscule instruments, then introduces himself to the audience, forgets the name of the film they’re watching more than once, before segueing into a series of commercial parodies—the best of the bunch, an ad for laundry detergent, ends up with a washing machine swallowing the hapless housewife spokesperson. (Our possessions possess us, dig…?)
Halfway through, Randall again intrudes onscreen, shattering that poor frangible fourth wall with a direct address to the “TV fans” in the audience. The picture shrinks to a tiny, B&W image in the middle of the vast black Scope frame, fluttering in vertical control failure. It’s all in good fun, of course, but then again it effortlessly registers the constrictive, downright blinkered viewpoint the medium imposes on its viewers.
Other targets the film skewers with abandon include jingoistic ad men (Hunter’s boss talks in a “drinkie-winkie” pidgin: half hipster, half gibbering infant), “blonde bombshell” film/fetish icons (Jayne Mansfield’s Rita Marlowe: a squealing, more-than-amply endowed starlet parodying both Marilyn Monroe and Mansfield’s own persona, down to Mickey Hargitay’s cameo as Bobo Branigansky, the TV Tarzan) and the teenybopper craze (which received fuller demolition in Tashlin’s earlier The Girl Can’t Help It , also starring Mansfield, embodied here in the legions of screaming Fan Clubbers who pursue Rock and Rita).
Underneath the frantic pace, sight gags and electric-bright primary colors, there’s a devastating sense of loneliness, disconnect and unquiet desperation, revealing Tashlin as a worthy addition to the ranks of Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk, the leading anatomists of the moral rot, hypocrisy and conformism lurking behind the glossy surfaces and white picket fences of Cleaver-Land—suburban, middle-class Middle America in the 1950s.