Black and white and enigmatic, Suture was one of the most singular debuts of American independent cinema at the time. Jason Wood talks to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel about identity, improbable gestures and ‘Ring of Fire’.
Jason Wood: What was the starting point for Suture? The synthesis of film noir and avant-garde cinema suggests that you are both keen cineastes, but the film also expresses an interest in issues relating to identity and wider philosophical concepts.
Scot McGehee/David Siegel: More than anything, Suture grew out of the films we were watching together at the time: some Japanese art films from the 60s, and also American paranoid thrillers, and every twin film we could get our hands on. We were thinking a lot about identity as a construct, and how film constructs identity; and certain narrative tropes started interesting us: hypnosis, twins, amnesia. Out of that stew, the basic plot sort of emerged fully formed.
Was it always your intention to have Clay and Vincent portrayed by actors who were black and white? Your tone here is often quite playful, but it also introduces an interesting take on racial politics that was considered quite potent for its time.
Clay and Vincent being portrayed by actors who were black and white was an idea we had while we were writing. It was an idea that we started out loving but not taking completely seriously. But it stayed in our heads. The humour of it, the ways in which it let the story be a little out of control. And the more we lived with it, and the more we worked on the script, the less we could imagine doing the film any other way. People tried to talk us out of it, of course.
The cinematography by Greg Gardiner is striking. How did you come to work with him and what instructions did you give him in terms of the look and tone you wanted to achieve? Was it always your intention to shoot in black and white?
We decided while writing that we were making a black and white film. More specifically, we decided we were making a black and white Scope film. At the time, we couldn’t think of one that had been made (in the United States, at least) since Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). All the Japanese films we had been watching were black and white Scope, and we loved the look of it, and loved the idea of using a very graphic wide-screen frame to shoot a fairly intimate drama.
Greg Gardiner was one of many people who interviewed for the job, but he talked to us from the beginning as though we were already working together. And though he hadn’t shot many films at that point, he’d had a very successful career as a gaffer. That experience was very appealing, because the light in the movie was something we hoped could really contribute to the emotional feel of the story. We spoke with Greg a lot about shooting the film in ‘white and black’, trying to capture a world of confidence and analysis rather than a more traditional ‘noir’ world of mystery and shadow.
One of the other aspects of Suture that most impresses is Kelly McGehee’s production design and the general use of locations and interiors. Can you say something about the buildings in which you shot (Vincent’s apartment is particularly striking) and what sense you wanted these locations and mise en scène to communicate?
We shot the film in Phoenix Arizona at a time when the city was very depressed financially, so the central downtown area was quite eerie and deserted, but it still had that crisp, clean, arid feeling of a desert city. The location we used for Vincent’s house was a vacant Savings and Loan office. We shot many of our interiors in vacant office spaces, which had a nice anonymous quality and were available at a very good price. We wanted the film to exist in a psychological space more than a realistic one, so the gestures could be big, graphic and improbable.
We had worked with Kelly on both of our short films, so we all kind of grew up together and our creative collaboration was already a number of years old when we began Suture. And she had been involved in the thinking for the film as we were writing, so a good deal of the design foundation had been laid long before we ever got to Phoenix.
The final face-off between Vincent and Clay is brilliantly realised. Was this a difficult sequence to execute?
Most of the sequence is fairly straight-forward shooting, with the exception of the last overhead shot in the bathroom. That’s an image that we’d written quite precisely into the screenplay. Despite our low budget, the bathroom was the one set we insisted on building, just to be able to realise that shot. To do it, we had to fix-mount the camera on scaffolding about 20 feet above the stage, rigging it quite precariously in a way that didn’t allow for any direct looking through the viewfinder. It wasn’t until the video tap was attached that we could actually see the shot: Vincent walking towards Clay, separated by the shower curtain, each with his gun drawn. We were both kind of flipped out by how intact the original written shot had remained, and how connected we both still felt to it. It became this very emotional moment for us, and is still one of our fondest production memories.
The song ‘Ring of Fire’ plays a prominent role. You use both the Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions. What was the thinking behind this?
Johnny Cash is The Man in Black. Tom Jones is a Welsh soul singer. We loved both versions of the song, and liked the pun of the car-phone bomb transforming Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ into Tom Jones’s version, much as Clay was about to become Vincent. Chalk it up to the juvenile sense of humour of first-time filmmakers, but it all felt right. In the end, we probably paid more for the rights to the various versions than we actually earned making the movie. But it still seems worth it.
Steven Soderbergh came on board as an executive producer. What function did he perform and how beneficial did it prove to have his name attached to the project?
We had brought the film to a rough-cut state and were in the process of trying to raise money when we met Steven. We knew someone who knew someone who was close to him, and that person managed to convince him to come to a screening. The screening turned out to be a technical disaster: reels projected out of order, the wrong gate in the projector. Afterwards, Steven suggested we meet for coffee the next morning, and we were sure we would get a polite, collegial brush off. Instead, he told us he had spoken to his accountant about mortgaging his house to help us finish the film. The accountant had apparently talked him out of that scheme, but Steven adopted us anyway, and stuck with us for months as we continued cutting. We finally raised the finishing funds through a contact of his in France. He was an invaluable and tireless supporter, and a true friend.
Is the climate in which you made Suture very different to the one in which you currently find yourselves working? Looking back on the experience, what do you most recall about the making of the film and its critical and commercial reception?
The whole experience of making and releasing Suture was a series of firsts for us. Reviews, festivals, publicists. Though it didn’t perform well at the box office in the US, we had been to Telluride, Cannes and Sundance. It was all gratifying and fresh, and ultimately it opened doors to people within the industry who were interested in helping us make more movies. Looking back, we can see that we were lucky to have had that first experience within an independent film world that was considerably smaller than today (and friendlier, in a way). No independent film had made $100 million at the box office at that point (or anything even close), so the expectations were lower and the approach to independent filmmakers was, perhaps, less restrictive.
Neither of us had gone to film school or had any real training or apprenticeship in the film business. We had only made two short films when the production began, and so, often, we found ourselves learning how to do things only one step ahead of actually doing them. Sometimes less than a step. But the people we worked with during the making of the film, and the people who helped us get it out into the world, were for the most part incredibly open, generous and collaborative. Looking back on Suture, we find it hard not to remember how much fun we had.
Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME, Manchester, will introduce a screening of Suture at the ICA on 7 July 2016.
The Austrian zither is synonymous with The Third Man (1949), considered by many cineastes to be one of the greatest films of all time. A combination of guitar and harp, it is a five-string fretboard that belongs to the piano family and is played with the left hand.
The pleasant and alluring signature sound of the zither score starts with the eponymous theme tune – re-titled ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ in the UK after Orson Welles’s character. This seemingly inauspicious musical moment singlehandedly introduced the post-war world to a very unusual Austrian instrument. ‘The Third Man Theme’ enjoyed 11 weeks at number one in America. This kind of stand-alone success didn’t go unnoticed by the movie moguls. It pioneered the use of soundtracks to market and sell films.
Like all the best innovations and cultural phenomena this paradigm shift was entirely down to chance. Director Carol Reed was picking up carafes of wine for his crew when he spotted Viennese local Anton Karas playing the zither for pennies in the courtyard of a small sausage restaurant on the outskirts of Vienna. It was the first time Reed had heard this strange instrument. His mind raced as he wondered if it could carry a whole film score.
Karas was a virtuoso; he’d been playing ever since he found a concert zither in his attic in 1918 aged just 12. Reed brought him back to his Austrian hotel and after successfully testing recordings of the zither with rushes from the film he invited the stunned Karas to score the music for The Third Man.
The Austrian musician spoke no English and initially took some convincing to come to London. Eventually one night he asked Reed to listen to a new tune he’d done – this turned out to be the first recorded version of ‘The Third Man Theme’. Reed loved it and, unappreciative of the skills required, asked him why he hadn’t played that before. Karas supposedly told him that the tune takes a lot out of your fingers.
In the wake of The Third Man’s success the venues for Karas’s performances changed dramatically. He was invited to play the zither for Princess Margaret in Buckingham Palace and for the Pope in Rome. With the money he made from the film Karas bought a bar in Grenzing, Austria… and called it ‘The Third Man’.
Screening at: Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF), UK
Dates: 27 March – 6 April 2014
Also screening at: ICA, London
Dates: 18-23 April 2014
At the height of its powers, the Japanese film industry produced over 500 hundreds films a year. As such, it is not uncommon for films, or entire filmographies of particular directors, to go overlooked or undetected for many years. This is certainly the case for director Yoshitarô Nomura (1919-2005), a name that is largely unheralded in international film criticism. However, decades after his most seminal contributions to Japanese cinema, Nomura is receiving his first ever international retrospective at this year’s Bradford International Film Festival.
Considered to be a pioneer of Japanese film noir, Yoshitarô Nomura may very well be one of Japanese cinema’s best kept secrets. Including over 80 films, his long career began at the height of Japan’s cinematic golden age, and his genre-centric filmmaking was widely popular with Japanese audiences in its day. He was best known for his film adaptations of stories by revered crime/mystery author Seichô Matsumoto, who, at his commercial peak during the late 1950s, was Japan’s highest paid writer. Politically left-leaning, Matsumoto’s downbeat novels were emblematic of the post-war pessimism experienced by the Japanese people in the turbulent years following atomic destruction, foreign occupation and waning nationalism. Bradford’s retrospective collects the five best examples of Nomura’s Matsumoto adaptations, including Stakeout (aka The Chase, Harikomi, 1958), Zero Focus (Zero no shôten, 1961), The Shadow Within (Kage no kuruma, 1970), The Castle of Sand (Suna no utsuwa, 1974) and The Demon (Kichiku, 1978).
What is immediately apparent is that although Nomura’s films have never garnered much interest in the West, they demonstrate a clear interest in Western film conventions, particularly 40s and 50s American noir. This influence is perhaps best represented in Zero Focus, a strange and exhilarating fusion of duplicitous, Hitchcockian intrigue and post-war Japanese social commentary.
The story starts with newlywed Teiko (Yoshiko Kuga) telling us, via voice-over narration, that her husband of a single week, Kenichi (K244ji Nambara), a successful ad agency executive, has been promoted to the company’s head office in Tokyo, but needs to travel cross-country to his former branch to tie up loose ends. However, after boarding the train to Kanazawa, he is never seen again. Concerned, Teiko heads to Kanazawa in search of him, with only a couple of photos and a lead at Kenichi’s old office to go on. As she makes her enquiries, Teiko realises just how little she knew about her husband as the remnants of a secret double life come to the fore. Digging deeper into Kenichi’s past, Teiko soon meets a woman who may have had reason to murder him.
Zero Focus revels in several standard noir conceits. The film is framed around Kuga’s matter-of-fact voice-over, but also relies on nefarious characters, dual identities, quick plotting and shock revelations. There’s even a bottle of poisoned whiskey doing the rounds – bumping off characters who know too much. But rather than merely emulating his American muses, in particular Alfred Hitchcock and Rebecca (1940), Nomura blends these propensities with a slightly skewered rendition of presentational Japanese filmmaking. As is the case with many films from this era, Takashi Kawamata’s cinematography features plenty of immaculate compositions. However, something looks and feels different here; stripped down and strangely mechanical. Zero Focus is not gritty exactly – it’s too pristine for that – but a certain rough efficiency prevails. This is partly due to geography, with Nomura largely eschewing the cinematic comfort zone of modern Tokyo and keeping much of the action in small, rural and, as yet, relatively undeveloped towns along Japan’s west coast, creating a more down-to-earth quality that belies Kawamata’s professional framing.
Watch the original Japanese trailer for Zero Focus:
Indeed, Zero Focus has a number of things to say about the modernisation process the country was undergoing at the time. The film seems to subtly criticise the centuries-old social tradition of miai, where the family of an individual tries to match them with a prospective marital partner, prefaced with a brief period of courtship to see if they nominally get along (a suggested marriage rather than arranged). It’s through this process that Teiko and Kenichi are wed, and the story relies on Teiko’s naïveté about her husband for the mystery of his double life to function, which may not have been the case if their relationship had been built over a longer, more organic period. In the background of its murder/suicide plot, Zero Focus seems to suggest that if Japan were to truly modernise, maybe it needed to abandon such long-held, old-fashioned values.
Such progressive thinking carries over into the film’s structure, which is laid out in two distinct sections. The first consists of relentless investigation, as Teiko dutifully seeks out the next person to question. The second depicts an extended cliff-top confrontation, where we learn what really happened to Kenichi. The first act is the winding up that precipitates the grand unspooling of the finale, where light-footed flashbacks flesh out and tie together the multiple story strands, coupled with differing assumptions of events in a way similar to both Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Ikiru (1952). And yet, Zero Focus is so nimble, so brazenly twisty, that it’s all too easy to get lost in its heaps of convolution. The film moves briskly through each scene, which doesn’t leave much room for the building and releasing of tension. On the flip side, there is something equally refreshing in its single-mindedness and tightly constructed sequences. Dense it may be, but Zero Focus is an interesting minor success nonetheless.
And if Zero Focus is characterised by deft poise, The Castle of Sand is its inverse cousin: a sprawling police procedural that is consistently identified by Japanese critics as one of the greatest Japanese films of all time. Based on a popular mystery serialisation Matsumoto wrote for daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, later published as the novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates, The Castle of Sand sees two detectives – a veteran (Tetsurô Tamba) and a rookie (Kensaku Morita) – try to solve the murder of an elderly man found bludgeoned to death in a train yard.
Like Zero Focus, scant clues point to the countryside, which Tamba’s Detective Imanishi traverses via train – an increasingly key component to Matsumoto’s stories – and bus in the sweltering Japanese summer heat. Imanishi begins to track down characters from the victim’s past, who was a retired police officer well liked and deeply respected in the community he presided over. But just as Imanishi’s investigation starts to run out of steam, he begins to establish a connection between the deceased, Miki (Ken Ogata), and Eiryo Waga (Gô Katô), a famous classical composer with a buried secret.
Watch a trailer for The Castle of Sand:
Unfurling over nearly two and a half hours, The Castle of Sand front-loads its narrative with Imanishi’s investigation: following up leads, interviewing persons of interest, establishing motives, hitting dead ends, re-evaluating the evidence, finding new leads and so on. It’s very matter-of-fact and borders on being humdrum, executed in a plain, linear fashion that lacks the energy of, say, Zero Focus.
However, the film makes a noticeable gear change when Imanishi finally presents his findings, and the identity of the person he suspects is the murderer, to his department. All the loose ends from previous scenes start to tie together as he posits his hypothesis, which features an extended explanation to establish the connection between the murderer and the murdered. Imanishi’s presentation is intercut with scenes from a classical concert performed by Waga and his orchestra, which provides the backing soundtrack to a series of flashbacks concerning the murderer’s motivation – a childhood fraught with hardship and discrimination. These expositional scenes, where Ogata features as the still-alive police officer Miki, play out sans dialogue and, as such, are evocative of silent movie storytelling, with the sweeping symphony of Waga’s concert as musical accompaniment. It is at this point where The Castle of Sand reveals its hand, shifting from a mundane investigation to an engrossing character study enriched with pathos and complex emotional depth.
Nomura’s exploration of pathos and emotional complexity arguably reached its zenith with The Demon, perhaps the most downbeat and pessimistic of his Matsumoto adaptations. Based on one of the writer’s short stories, which in turn was inspired by a real-life incident, The Demon sees Nomura working again with Ken Ogata, who plays the put-upon owner of a failing printing business that he runs with his wife (Shima Iwashita). However, the story starts with Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa), the long-time mistress of Ogata’s Sokichi and mother of his three secret love children – Riichi (Hiroki Iwase), aged 6; Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), aged 3; and baby Shoichi (Jun Ishii).
When Sokichi is unable to continue with his maintenance payments, Kikuyo snaps, corralling the kids onto the next train to confront him and break the news about his secret family to his wife. Upon finding out that he has no more money to pay her, Kikuyo takes off, leaving the children in Sokichi’s care. Sokichi tries to take on the burden of having three new mouths to feed. His understandably peeved wife, however, is not so inclined, and becomes increasingly hostile towards the children. What follows is a difficult yet strangely engrossing watch, as Sokichi tries to shirk this new responsibility he can’t afford to take on. With no sign of his mistress, who has well and truly disappeared, Sokichi is manipulated by his belligerent wife to conceive ways of disposing of the children (after all, there’s no concrete evidence proving that they are indeed his). But his growing attachment to them makes this easier said than done.
With its domestic tension and controversial subject matter that flirts heavily with child abuse, The Demon is certainly one of the toughest of Nomura’s films to stomach. But if there is only one thing that makes this fiendish and unsavoury tale palatable, even compassionate, it lies with Ogata’s fearless and mesmerising lead performance. While he doesn’t elicit sympathy exactly, Ogata does manage to convey a very real sense of conflict, hurt and desperation, with Iwashita’s wife character perhaps being more broadly ‘evil’ and antagonistic. Either could qualify as the ‘demon’ of the film’s title, and one could argue that Kikuyo, the mistress, is also not totally blameless. Playing the murder victim in The Castle of Sand, Ogata is, in his own way, playing a victim once again, torn between a lingering, unconditional paternal love and the cold reality of his wife and financial situation.
There’s the children to consider as well; all of whom perform admirably in the face of such terrible treatment (Iwase is a particular highlight as the precocious Riichi), with Nomura’s confident direction ensuring that the interplay between Ogata and his estranged kids is taut, unpredictable yet sensitive, and sometimes deceptively moving. The Demon, then, manages that rare trick in cinema of making you care about an absolute scoundrel. Ogata ended up winning the Best Actor prize for his efforts at the 2nd Japanese Academy Awards, securing a prestigious career playing unusual and/or challenging roles in films such as Shôhei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama-bushi kô, 1983), where he won Best Actor again, and Paul Schrader’s multi-segmented Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).
This modest sample of Nomura’s career strongly suggests a body of work that’s not afraid to retain its edges and venture places that threaten to render it unpopular. Hopefully, we will see more of his films released soon as a result of his rediscovery. To this end, the power of the film retrospective should not go underestimated. If it wasn’t for the retrospective curated by the late Donald Ritchie for the Berlin Film Festival in 1963, the films of Yasujir244 Ozu would have likely been confined to the position of niche curiosity, reserved only for the most dedicated of world cinema aficionados. Although it’s unlikely Nomura will ever receive the same admiration as Ozu, the fact that his work is finally having its moment in the sun at an international festival is cause enough for celebration.
As readers will already know, there can be no such thing as too much Django, Ringo, Sartana, Sabata, Trinity et al, so the release of not one but two excellent tomes on the Spaghetti Western can be considered a bounty. In no preferential order then, Kevin Grant’s terrific Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns, published by the ever reliable FAB Press, gives us an insightful eight-chapter socio-historical overview of the cycle and includes two comprehensive appendices: a 47-page survey of ‘Who’s Who in Euro-Westerns’ and an essential 35-page chronological survey, ‘The Euro-Western Westerns’, which begins the voyage with Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent’s 1955 film El Coyote and ends with Lucky Luke (James Huth, 2009). As if this were not enough, I.B. Tauris has also come up trumps with the publication of the more scholarly tome Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema by Austin Fisher. It necessarily covers much of the same historical ground, but does so in a much deeper critical and analytical way that is not, however, excessively theory-heavy. Academically assured and with a firm grasp on the socio-politico culture of the period, it makes for an engrossing contextual read.
I.B. Tauris is always a reliable and authoritative publisher of film books and has released many other worthy titles in the last months, among which the fecund author Howard Hughes figures prominently. His latest book, Cinema Italiano, is a rip-roaring roller-coaster ride through the history of Italian cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s when it rivalled Hollywood itself as the foremost cinematic production machine in the world. Charting the storming of the box office by Hercules (Pietro Francisi, 1958) and the sword-and-sandal epics that followed in its wake, and then travelling through film space past all the successful genres that the Italians – often with international monies – colonised, such as costume dramas, Gothic delights, sci-fi, Spaghetti Westerns, Euro crime and Euro spy cycles, gialli thrillers, comedies, zombie flicks and soft-core screwballs, allows Hughes to introduce some 400 examples into his text. Though not the ‘Complete Guide from Classics to Cult’ that the cover suggests – a near impossible task as hundreds of films were cranked out in the period – Hughes’s book is comprehensive, with informed commentaries that make the reader want to put down the book and view or re-view many of the movies mentioned, which seems, in this reviewer’s eyes, to be the most important goal of any book about films. Cinema Italiano is great fun and full of fascinating facts that evidence the author’s love and passion for the topic. A thumbs-up for the cover design too, which is a nice pastiche of period graphics.
Finally, Film Noir: Jazz on Film by Selwyn Harris merits a mention for being a classy and sassy little book that is unique in its discussion of five noir soundtracks – Private Hell 36, The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, Odds against Tomorrow, Touch of Evil, Sweet Smell of Success and A Streetcar Named Desire. However, the book is only available as part of a fantastic box-set of these re-released (once difficult to get hold of) soundtracks on CD. While it may be argued that not all the films are strictly in the noir canon, these gems of scoring by the likes of Ellington, Mancini and Bernstein are just the jazzy tonic to listen to while reading your Cine Lit choices. A very welcome – and delicious – release.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Alongside the warning that the contents include ‘Adult Material’, the back cover of Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema around the World includes this teaser:
Have you seen:
-the Indian song and dance version of Dracula?
-the Mexican masked wrestling films of El Santo?
-the Turkish version of Star Trek?
-the kung fu fighting gorilla films of South East Asia?
-the gore films of Indonesia?
Author Pete Tombs angles – alongside the like-minded Messrs Stevenson and Sargeant – in the muddy backwaters of film culture in search of strange species. Published by Titan in 1997, this superb collection of mind-bendingly bizarre films takes the reader on a well-researched and knowledgeable insider tour of the transgressive – and downright surreal – cinemas of Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and three chapters’ worth of Japan. Though 15 years old now, the book is still relevant and necessary due both to the quality of the narrative and the still unavailable nature of many of the films discussed. Save this book! JE
Katy Darby’s debut novel, The Whores’ Asylum mixes thrilling high drama with a Gothic sensibility. In the seedy back streets of Oxford in 1887, the close friendship of two worthy men is threatened by the delicious Diana, a woman with a troubled past and a dark future. London-based Darby teaches writing at City University and co-runs the monthly live fiction event Liars’ League. Her filmic Alter Ego is Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction. EITHNE FARRY
‘When women go wrong, men go right after them.’ (Mae West)
If I had to be a film femme fatale, I’d bypass the obvious choices (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct) and squeeze myself into the slinky shoes of Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction (1994). Bridget is quite a piece of work, as is this pitch-black neo-noir crime thriller, an underrated classic if ever there was one. I flirted briefly with the idea of nominating Sean Young’s cool replicant Rachael in Blade Runner – but Rachael, being not quite human, is essentially innocent; and if there’s one thing a femme fatale is, it’s guilty as hell.
Bridget is certainly no innocent: having made off with $700,000 stolen from her crooked husband Clay (Bill Pullman) and gone on the run, she stops off at a bar in Nowheresville, where local boy Mike (Peter Berg) tries to chat her up by telling her he’s hung like a horse. She promptly invites him to sit, sticks her hand down his pants, and says, ‘Let’s see’: now there’s a woman with balls. Soon she decides to rid herself of her annoying ex by manipulating Mike to kill him, then double-crosses Mike too – getting away with the money, and murder, by playing the ‘helpless victim’ card.
Bridget is, unapologetically, a nasty girl. Not conflicted, not confused: just out-and-out bad. She knows it, and uses it to get exactly what she wants. Many femmes fatales, especially in film noir, come to a sticky end because, after all, they’re bad girls, and that’s what happens to them, right? Wrong. In this film Bridget isn’t a plot device, a cardboard villain, or a temptress leading the protagonist astray: she is the protagonist. It’s absolutely her story, and she wins in the end – and we love to watch her do it, leaving broken hearts, cast-off underwear and smoking cigarette butts in her wake.
Few film genres would appear to be so readily associated with a particular style of music as film noir with jazz, the former’s smoky chiaroscuro and louche, simmering sexuality apparently the perfect complement to the bruised sax tones of Private Hell 36 (1954), arranged by Shorty Rogers from Leith Stevens’s score, or the swung high hats of Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). One film in which this normally cool complement heats up into a whirling fury of burning sexual energy is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944).
Though there is not a great deal of music in Phantom Lady, Siodmak preferring to build up his tension through atmospheric use of foley effects and extensive silences, such music as remains is consistently worthy of note. The blustery opening theme by Hans Salter, a former student of Alban Berg, whistles along breezily, lulling us into a false sense of security, before neatly segueing into an arrangement of the song the unknown ‘phantom lady’ herself (played by Fay Helms) will soon select on a jukebox in a lowdown dive bar, ‘I’ll Remember April’. This is Siodmak’s first use of what will become a signature leitmotif in his films for star-crossed encounters, recurring later in Christmas Holiday (1944), The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), always with much the same connotation. But all this pent-up tension is finally released in one explosive, quasi-orgasmic scene roughly half-way through the picture.
Amateur detective ‘Kansas’ Carol Richman (played by Ella Raines) has dolled herself up as a loose, gum-chewing dame in order to seduce Elisha Cook Jr.’s sleazy drummer. He invites her down to a late night jam session in a basement club, and as the door swings open, the camera zooms in on the horn of Dole Nicolls’s trombone as he blasts out a dolorous bluesy solo. The camera dollies deeper into the room, introducing each leering face of the musicians one by one: former Jimmy Dorsey Band charter member Jimmy Slack, hammering out a delirious boogie-woogie on the piano, Barney Bigard, one-time member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong’s All-Star Concert Group, shoving his squealing clarinet in Richman’s face, Howard Ramsey (possibly a misspelling of Howard Rumsey, bassist for Stan Kenton) slapping at the high end of the neck of his stand-up bass, and finally Roger Hanson on trumpet. The tight framing, Dutch angles and deep shadows constantly emphasise Richman’s discomfort as the session heats up into a wild hard bop. In the novel on which the film is based, Cornell Woolrich describes the scene as a ‘sort of Dante-esque inferno’.
Then Cook takes the drum stool and with wild, possessed eyes starts hammering out a furious solo, building into a tumult of snare fills and flying cymbals as Richman goads him, her hands grasping towards him as though squeezing the energy out of him. The solo builds with such intensity – and with such thinly disguised sexual innuendo – that the local censor board of Pennsylvania insisted on all its close-ups being cut from screenings in the state.
As David Butler remarks in his study of the film’s music, ‘jazz would seldom be featured so graphically this way again’. IMDB credits the drum solo to the little-known David Coleman. But according to Leonard Maltin – and an unknown poster on YouTube who claims to have discussed the matter with Cook himself – it was really Buddy Rich hammering away on the sticks behind the scenes.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Black and White Reality: a Sermon and Review – Alain Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’Ã®le
While ‘love’ is an overused word, even by yours truly, I must proclaim wholeheartedly:
I LOVE black and white movies.
I’m not saying I prefer black and white to colour, or that it’s superior in any way.
As a matta uh fakt, I shorley dew luvs a great color pitcher as much as the next fella’.
For me, however, black and white photography – when used in movies – forces the deep examination (or at least acknowledgement) of various shades of grey with respect to the political, thematic and/or emotional qualities of the work itself. While it might be argued that my preference for cinema in b/w is purely subjective and relates strictly to preferring the ‘look’, I’d counter that the visual qualities take a back seat to cinematic storytelling elements, which indeed go far deeper than mere surface.
One of my favourite movies of all time is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a picture that details the grimy nightlife of New York press agents and gossip columnists. It is a world where Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent, will pimp out a young woman he genuinely likes to a foul-minded sleaze ball who has the power to grant a very special favour; a world where JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist, delights in wielding his power to destroy people just because he can; a world where, in spite of endless acts of dishonesty and cruelty, redemption – even for the most fetid – might be just around the corner.
Finally, there is the character of the city itself – a city seen mostly at night, from dusk to dawn – full of violence, excitement, electricity, deception and despair. It is a city where the gossip columnist Hunsecker, upon witnessing a violent drunken altercation outside a nightclub, literally salutes the swill around him and declares, ‘I love this dirty town’.
Seen through the b/w lens of cinematographer James Wong Howe, the atmosphere of Sweet Smell of Success and its setting – both exhilarating and rank with people and places of the most odious variety – would, if filmed in colour, make a completely different film. It would be as different as the New York of the 1950s was compared to the sadly gussied-up New York of today. The world of Sweet Smell of Success can only exist in monochrome – a world replete with multi-layered emotions, desires and intentions. In a contemporary context, colour is often seen as ‘reality’ whereas anyone consciously choosing b/w is seen as applying a heavy brush of artifice and mediating the vision in some impure, unreal fashion.
If anything, b/w can often reveal a world that is all too real.
As a filmmaker, I always found myself drawn to the properties and magic of b/w. In fact, I still do. God help me for this, but depending on the property, I have, for the past 12 or so years, suggested b/w to many of my filmmakers at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre. And of the 10 independent films I produced from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, five of them were in b/w (two of which were directed by Guy Maddin). B/W was employed in both Maddin pictures to recreate an earlier cusp-period of cinema, and also because monochrome seemed to be the best way of capturing that dreamlike, hallucinogenic atmosphere the films were deeply rooted in. Surreal, but imbued with logic, or if you will, dream logic (not unlike, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead).
As the producer of Maddin’s third feature Careful, I was heartbroken to be the arm-twister who had to convince him to shoot in colour rather than b/w. The making of a tough artistic decision (based, alas, on the exigencies of financing) led to a process comprised of pain, rumination, exploration and lovers’ quarrels – intense break-up-then-make-up gymnastics that yielded the important yet delightfully insane post-coital (as it were) idea of shooting in b/w for theatrical release and then using the cheesy early-90s colorisation process for video and television release.
Realising that some colorised b/w classics had a rather quaint aura and were vaguely reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor is what led to the final decision of shooting with colour stock since the cost of colorisation technology at the time was prohibitive and it wouldn’t have provided firmer control over the final look.
Using a combination of (now-defunct, at least in Canada) AGFA colour stock and Kodak b/w (that would eventually be colour-tinted), Guy created an archaic duo-chromatic mise en scÃ¨ne where each scene would have no more than two dominant colours. This was not only a visually cool approach, but thematically and emotionally it made perfect sense within the context of the George Toles and Maddin-penned tale of repression that explodes in shame, guilt and depravity. In a sense, I still feel that Careful is a b/wmovie, or rather, a black and white picture in colour.
As producer of Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s experimental feature narrative City of Dark, my obsession with b/w led to importing 16mm b/w Ilford film stock from the UK (16mm in order to run and gun like Godard and his ilk since we had literally hundreds of locations to cover with a tiny documentary-sized crew), getting the footage processed by one of the best b/w 16mm timers in Canada (an amazing old hand at this, Mr Geoff Bottomley, who ran a tiny, grotty little lab in the bowels of the Ryerson University film department in Toronto) and finally, having the elements blown up to 35mm at NYC’s legendary DuArt Laboratory with many of the same technicians who had worked on the b/w timing of Woody Allen’s forays into monochrome. All this was to create a somewhat contemporary, yet vaguely retro dystopian world where dreams are stolen via technology. Again, the literal shades of grey were rendered to allow the viewer to delve even further into the thematic and emotional shades of grey.
In the end, though, all cinematic art involves the application of artifice – hence my guilt-free preference for b/w. The use of black and white might seem more artificial, but ultimately, it is no less ‘real’ than colour.
* * *
I discovered the great Alain Cavalier picture Le Combat dans l’Ã®le (1962) in the days leading up to Dominion Day (sadly renamed Canada Day in the 1980s) – a magnificent celebration instituted by Mother England among Commonwealth nations to celebrate their official status as dominions under the watchful eye of the greatest colonial power in the world.
I viewed Le Combat dans l’Ã®le on high-def in my hideaway on the extreme northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula – a piece of land that was colonised not once, but twice – first, rather benignly by the French and secondly, less benignly by the British. In both cases, the Peninsula’s Native Indians got screwed while everyone else got rich and powerful.
The first colonisation resulted in the Huron Nation helping the French kick Iroquois butt for explorer Samuel D Champlain and institute a fur monopoly. Once the French buggered off, the Huron suffered a mass genocide at the hands of the Iroquois who, not surprisingly, came back for sweet revenge.
The Peninsula was re-populated with the Ojibwe who migrated from the northwestern regions of Upper Canada. They too were eventually fucked over, but this time, by the British, who brought pestilence along with scads of land-gobbling inbred miscreants from the northern reaches of the UK to ‘pioneer’ or tame, if you will, the wild land. The Dominion of Canada is, of course, still a colony of the UK, although it has maximum self-determination, unlike the aboriginal nations before it.
In any event, it seems utterly appropriate for me to have watched the fabulous new Zeitgeist Films DVD release of Le Combat dans l’Ã®le within the context of a colonial celebration in a region endlessly pillaged by the masters of colonisation. This was, after all, a picture made in the waning days of France’s Algerian War when le beau pays was fraught with division regarding its place as a colonial power.
This, of course, was not lost on the filmmakers. Reflecting those turbulent times, director Alain Cavalier crafted an intensely powerful film – passionate, boldly political, charged with violence, rife with betrayal and sexy as all get-out.
And get this – it’s in black and white!
And yes, the shades of grey within the narrative itself begin early on in the proceedings as we’re introduced to Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clément (Jean-Louis Tritignant). Anne is a former actress who has abandoned her artistic calling to fulfil the role of dutiful wife to Clément. Her hedonistic qualities seem unfairly hemmed in by this arrangement and though she appears to love her husband, her happy-go-lucky nature in social situations wavers between innocent and overtly flirtatious.
Clément, clearly smitten with her charms when they’re alone, is less so in public. The magma jealously roiling in his head would be better served if it travelled to the head located in the southerly nether regions below his torso. With Romy Schneider as his wife – a catch if there ever were one – he’s a lucky fella indeed!
Then again, the picture itself is firmly rooted in a neo-noir world where seemingly lucky (or unlucky) guys can never properly see what’s staring them right in the face. This is certainly the deal with rock-headed Clément. He comes from a wealthy family, holds a cushy, work-free position with his Father, a powerful industrialist, and yet, seeks rather pathetically to become ‘political’. He chastises Daddy for kowtowing to Liberal sentiments, leaves the firm and allows himself to be duped by conservative extremists into assassinating a key left-wing political figure.
In spite of all this, Anne is devoted to him. While she leaves Clément after one of his upper-magma-head outbursts, she soon returns to be his loyal sex kitten. When he’s betrayed after a foiled assassination attempt, his mug plastered all over the newspapers and television screens, she turns into his faithful moll and heads on the lam with him.
Things go awry when they shack up with his old chum Paul (Henri Serre), a sensitive lefty who eventually cottons on to Clément’s right-wing terrorist shenanigans. When our not-so-clear-headed hero takes off on an odyssey of revenge, Anne falls in love with Paul, who rekindles her acting career and a belief in a life of gentle compassion. It is, however, just a matter of time before Clément returns and wants Anne back, and given his transformation from a misguided, somewhat inept terrorist into a cold-hearted killer, the proceedings inevitably point to a showdown. And what a showdown it is!
This is, if you haven’t guessed already, one terrific picture!
Given the state of the world at this point in time, Le Combat dans l’Ã®le seems as vibrantly relevant as it must have been upon its first release in 1962. We currently live in a world where America, purporting to be a saviour, is little more than a colonial power – using Band-Aid solutions to pacify its near-Third World domestic conditions and forcing itself upon Muslim nations in order to control their wealth. Equally, we live in a world where young men on the extremist Muslim side, some from desperate straits and others from positions of privilege, are duped into committing acts of violence in the name of God and ultimately, to maintain control of the wealth America seeks to steal from them.
The puppet masters in both cases have everything to gain, while the puppets have everything to lose. And this is why Clément is never fully reprehensible as a character, at least not during the first two-thirds of the picture. Jean-Louis Tritignant’s great performance allows us to empathise with Clément. Through a sexy, tough-as-nails exterior we see a character who thinks he is making active decisions, but is, more often than not, manipulated by those who are quick to take advantage of his need for political fulfilment. In a sense, Clément reminds me of Tom Neal’s hapless, hard-boiled oaf in Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic Detour – so easily seduced, so easily duped, so easily abandoned – and we do feel for him in spite of all his miscalculations and failings.
I love how Cavalier’s script (with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) adds very subtle details to Clément’s character, which in turn force Tritignant to engage in the thespian callisthenics of subtle, delicate shading. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which Tritignant conveys his relationship to his father and to his family’s money: there’s a sense that what he needs is not acceptance, coddling or an easy ride from his pÃ¨re, but love – pure and simple – a love that might have saved him from the arms of an evil seductress.
That seductress is not a nasty ice-blooded femme fatale as in Detour, where she is played by the late, great Ann Savage (whose final role was as Guy Maddin’s mother Herdis in My Winnipeg). Clément’s temptress in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is something far more insidious – the extreme right wing and its insatiable need for power through colonisation, exploitation and deadly terror tactics.
This is, after all, neo-noir as opposed to film noir – where misplaced idealism more than takes the place of a flesh-and-blood hottie.
If anything, the entity Clément admires most is what brings him down. He seeks acceptance from nobody other than himself – a worthy enough goal, but one that renders him irrevocably and tragically prostate to the whims of New World Order-styled power brokers.
Another fascinating element of Cavalier’s picture is the use of trinity within the narrative structure. This is manifested on a thematic and character level through the numerous triangles that stem from Clément himself. The first involves Clément, his wife Anne and his almost romantic obsession with the Bitch Goddess of the right wing. The second concerns his inability to bond with his father, his intense need to find his way in the world through politicisation of the most reprehensible kind and the fact that, ironically, his father is as much a part of the New World Order as the crackpots Clément is aligned with. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, is the literal love triangle between Clément, Anne and his old childhood pal Paul.
As played by the sensitive, aquiline-featured Henri Serre, Paul is Trintignant’s opposite in every way, and given Anne’s warmth and vibrancy, he becomes the left-wing White Knight (or, if you will, Red Knight) in Shining Armour. Serre, by the way, was certainly no neophyte when it came to love triangles, having played the role of Jim in the ultimate cinematic rendering of the ménage Ã trois, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – released, incidentally, the same year as Le Combat dans l’Ã®le.
Trinity is, of course, an extremely important element within the context of classical cinema, and Cavalier comes from a great tradition of French filmmakers who dazzled us with their commitment to traditional storytelling form while, at the same time, maintaining clear, individual voices. While Cavalier made this picture during the period of the nouvelle vague he is closer to the spirit of Jean Renoir, HG Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville (who delightfully makes a cameo appearance in the picture as un membre de l’organisation) than to the style-over-emotional-substance approach of Jean-Luc Godard.
Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is the work of a great artist who works within a very structured narrative environment – approaching his mise en scÃ¨ne with the assuredness of a master, in spite of the fact that this is his first film. This is especially astounding to me. When it comes to contemporary filmmakers and their debut work, so much emphasis is placed by reviewers on pure (albeit occasional brilliant) visual flourishes, or worse, Christopher ‘One Idea’ Nolan-like trick-pony approaches to rendering drama, that Cavalier’s mature, intelligent and genuinely emotional work in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le makes most of the aforementioned lot look like a playpen full of rank amateurs. Cavalier’s precision and attention to story detail is something that more young filmmakers should emulate, while those who should know better need to bestow fewer accolades upon masturbatory workouts.
And despite the claims of auteuristes and their apologists, movies are not made in a vacuum. With this debut feature, Cavalier was blessed to have as producer and mentor Louis Malle, a great classical filmmaker in his own right for whom Cavalier served previously as an assistant director. In addition to the co-authorship of Jean Paul Rappeneau (who would go on to direct Cyrano and The Horseman on the Roof, contemporary entries in the French classical cinema sweepstakes, though far less dazzling and more workmanlike than the works of Cavalier, Clouzot, Melville, et al), Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is stunningly shot in magnificent black and white by Pierre Lhomme, who went on to shoot, among many others, such classics as Melville’s Army of Shadows, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, Someone behind the Door, one of the great French Euro-trash thrillers starring Charles Bronson, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and mon préféré du bonbon pervers du cinéma, Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie.
Cavalier’s most prominent collaborators, however, are his fabulous trio of central performers. Schneider, after many historical roles in form-wrenching period girdles, made her debut in this contemporary story and acquitted herself magnificently as Anne, the woman who acts as a deadly wedge between the two leading male characters. (With this film, Schneider also proves, that the girdles were, except for adherence to historical accuracy in her previous work, completely unnecessary.)
Serre as Anne’s lefty saviour has, without question, never been better (save, perhaps, for Jules et Jim). There is both peace and sadness in his eyes, yet his transformation from a gentle, lonely man to someone infused with both the passion of love and the requisite savagery needed for self-preservation makes him a more-than-perfect male counterpart to Trintignant.
All said and done, however, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who eventually gave an equally stunning performance (in a somewhat similar role) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, continually delivers the unexpected in the role of Clément. One aspect of his performance I have yet to mention is his eventual transformation into a major creep – from an empathetic dupe, he slowly morphs into something that is, frankly, skin-crawlingly malevolent. It’s here where one pines for his character’s redemption even more vigorously than before, all the while sensing futility in such an exercise.
Shades of grey, it would seem, never offer easy solutions or pat feelings. In Le Combat dans l’Ã®le, they offer a rich neo-noirpatisserie of the highest order, deliciously, thrillingly and densely layered.
Oh yes, and have I mentioned how great it looks in black and white?
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly
Date: 29 June 2009
Director: Roger Corman
Writers: Don Peters, Robert Thorn
Cast: Shelley Winters, Don Stroud, Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern
Got an itchy Oedipal rash? Whatever you do – don’t scratch it! It can only lead to murder and mayhem, crime and punishment. And that way, as we know, lies madness. At least, this is the fabula as it unfolds in several cinematic accounts. The volatile chemistry of excessive, unresolved mother love and poor (single mother/absent father) parenting skills can be explosive, and in the case of poor little Jarrett Cody in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), literally explosive: he ends his days at the centre of a massive explosion. ‘Made it Ma. Top of the world!’ he shouts as the giant gas tank where he makes his last stand ignites and blows him to Kingdom Come – where he will no doubt be able to enjoy sitting on Mama’s knee again.
Two differently nuanced – but none too subtle – accounts of mama love and its inevitable and inexorable pathway to criminality can be experienced in White Heat and Roger Corman’s 1970 Oedipal opus, Bloody Mama. Both stories place the source of the criminal sons’ behaviour clearly at the feet of the dominating mater.
This accounting of the environmental causes of crime – being ‘made bad’ – is one of several psychodynamic themes that dominate the criminal film genre. The criminologist Nicole Rafter has suggested in her book Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society that movies on the causes of crime fall into three categories: the just mentioned ‘made bad’ environmental category, the ‘born bad’ biological category and the ‘twisted psyche’ abnormal psychology category, which although it is a stand-alone classification can overlap with either of the other two, as seen in both of the films under discussion.
Another common point between them is the source material on which they are loosely based: the criminal life of Ma Barker and her boys. Several film storylines emanate from real-life gangster stories, and the headlines made by the Barker gang caught the public imagination with its violence and hints of unhealthy family relations. Ma Barker was active in the gang with her son, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, his brother Fred and their friend Alvin Karpis. Ma and Fred Barker died together resisting arrest in January 1935, gunned down by the FBI. Arthur was shot dead a few years later trying to escape from Alcatraz. Famously, his last words are supposed to have been, ‘I’m shot to hell’, which echoes Cody’s last exit words. In his autobiography, James Cagney, who played Cody, comments: ‘The original script of White Heat was very formula… For some kind of variant, I said to the writers, â€œLet’s fashion this after Ma Barker and her boys, and make Cody a psychotic to account for his actions.â€’ In the film, Cody is an epileptic, mother-obsessed criminal who, while married to a gorgeous moll, only has eyes (and ears) for ‘Ma’. He confides in her, plots with her, and always takes her advice over anyone else’s. She showers affection and approval upon him as he does upon her. There is no room in this relationship for any third parties and when his wife runs off with his first lieutenant Cody shrugs it off – he still has his mother.
His undoing, however, is brought about by finding a mother replacement – he loses Ma while serving his prison stretch – in the figure of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is an undercover cop assigned the task of buddying up to Cody and getting him to talk and incriminate himself. They share a cell, and while initially suspicious of Fallon, Cody comes to trust and then rely on him. Fallon saves him from another inmate’s murderous attack, then soothes and rubs his neck when he has an epileptic fit – having faked headaches as a child to gain the attention of his mother he eventually developed the condition. Later, Fallon helps him following his berserk dining hall fit triggered off when he hears of his mother’s death – his wife shot her in the back. When Jarrett makes his escape from prison he insists on taking Fallon along with him. Back in the gang he favours his now best and most trusted intimate, Fallon, with the exact same cut of the criminal takings as he used to give his beloved Ma. The proxy mother scenario is complete. It can be left to the present generation of Queer theorists to do with that text as they like.
The film adheres to the pre-war characterisation of a criminal’s over-indulgent mother (and lack of male authority figure: we are told that Jarrett’s father was put into an insane asylum) as Ma Jarrett pampers, indulges, nurses and soothes wild Cody. What is unusual in this account is the degree to which she encourages and aids her son in his criminal doings, in addition to counselling him in how to deal with ambitious and unruly underlings. This is no good boy gone bad who breaks a mother’s heart, this is a match made in Oedipal hell. Finally, bereft of Ma and betrayed by Fallon, the lone, crazed Cody is trapped in a chemical plant during his final heist. He ascends to the top of a gas tank, is shot by Fallon and finally pumps lead into the gas tank, which ignites it. He dies in a spectacular fireworks of an explosion that causes a massive mushroom cloud to appear, which, as many commentators have noted, looks like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb – a concern very much on American minds during the post-war years. With an emphasis on explicit and cold-blooded violence, extreme emotional displays, suggestive sexual scenes and Oedipal complexes played out, this is certainly a movie that shows how the Production Code of censorship was breaking down in the more world-weary post-war years.
By the time Roger Corman came to make his ‘Bonnie and Clyde meets the Manson family’ drive-in classic, Bloody Mama, in 1970, there was – in terms of freedom of expression – everything to play for. The strict Production Code of 1934 had been abandoned for a regulatory classification system in 1966 and movies – which had been denied ‘Freedom of Speech’ protection in a 1915 decision – were, in 1952, included under that constitutional safeguard. This paved the way for far more adult themes, topics, sexualities and addictions to be explored on the cinema screen. Corman took full advantage to probe the Oedipal psyche as could only be hinted at in the dark dreams of Jarrett Cody.
Corman took the story of Ma Barker and her sons and fashioned a twisted tale of familial relationships, desires and dysfunctions. Ma Barker and her boys inhabit a backwoods world of incest, homosexuality, drugs and murder – a pretty perfect drive-in movie concoction. Played with wild sensual abandon by the always reliably on-the-edge actress Shelley Winters, Kate ‘Ma’ Barker is a depraved, transgressive, neurotic and alluring harridan of near-grotesque proportions. The film opens with a barely pubescent Barker being raped by her father while her brothers hold her down. ‘Don’t know why you ain’t hospitable, Kate,’ the old man declares, ‘blood’s thicker than water’. We hear the ravished girl then vowing that one day she would have sons of her own to love and protect her. Flash forward to the present day – far-fetched and far from historical accuracy – and we see her giving baths to her grown-up sons, sharing beds with them, seducing her other son’s bi-sexual lover, making sensual overtures to another son’s girlfriend and finally trying to seduce a kidnap victim – an older, strong male type who threatens to challenge her matriarchal dominance over the boys. What a steamy Oedipal stew is on the boil here.
Naturally, all the misfits come to very bloody dead ends and what is so noticeably different from the conventions of pre-war gangster films is the emphatic shift away from ‘my mother never loved me’ as an explanation for the sons’ criminal behaviour to ‘my mother loved me too much’, which came to dominate contemporary discussions about juvenile delinquents and other moral trespassers. In both these films, these momma’s boys are either indulged, spoiled, molly-coddled (even aided and abetted in their crimes) and given too much infantile attention or, as in Bloody Mama, all of the above with sexual favours thrown in. As in many criminal films that attempt to ‘explain’ this aberrant behaviour, the subtleties of psychotherapeutic theory are abandoned wholesale and reduced to the one-size-fits-all primal scream, ‘Blame the Mother!’
Apparently, all that Jarrett Cody and the Barker boys needed was a good old-fashioned fatherly thrashing to sort that itchy rash out.
Dead Meadow have been thrilling audiences for the past decade with their 70s-inspired hard rock and psychedelic riffs, punk attitude and gorgeous tunes. When they moved from Washington, DC, to LA a few years ago, they embraced the California spirit with gusto and, perhaps in tribute to their new hometown, they have now made a movie. Taking a cue from the idea that the Three Kings were Bedouins and wandering mystics, the film combines old-school concert footage with fantasy vignettes shot in stunning locations, including the sand dunes used in Star Wars and John Lautner’s Elrod House in Palm Springs, where the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever was partly shot. The Three Kings (Double LP+DVD / CD+DVD) – five new songs, live recording and original film – is out on April 4 on Xemu Records. Watch the video for ‘That Old Temple’. Below, founder members Steve Kille (bass) and Jason Simon (guitar, vocals) tell us about their favourite movies of all time. LUCY HURST
1. Strangers on a Train (1951)
Probably next to Shadow of a Doubt, this is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest and most disturbing thrillers. The visuals, including the ‘eyeglass’ shot, are way ahead of their time, and a reminder of why Hitchcock is a true master. I love and have seen almost his whole catalogue, including his lesser-known early UK productions.
2. Double Indemnity (1944)
I love Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote this with Billy Wilder. Even though this was not entirely his baby, his unique way of making film noir helped bring it to life. It is a very powerful film set in 1940’s LA, and being a resident of the city makes it even more alluring to me. Edward G Robinson’s character is amazing, he’s the nosey boss you never want to have.
3. Casino Royale (1967)
There is nothing truly James Bond about this film, but it is a perfect example of the self-indulgent movie-making that was going on in the 60s. You’ve got Woody Allen, Peter Sellers and David Niven together in one movie that spoofs Bond with a fair amount of go-go dancing and mod sets. What else do you need for a rainy day?
4. The Mouse that Roared (1959)
Another great Peter Sellers movie, this time about a little country that made a big bang. Long live the Duchy of Grand Fenwick!
5. The Petrified Forest (1936)
I have always been drawn to the stillness and weirdness of the desert. It is hard to explain, unless you have been to a place like Tucson, how oddly refreshing it is. When I finally saw this movie, which launched Humphrey Bogart, I was blown away by how Leslie Howard describes this very feeling, as a wandering European in the hills of sand and cactus. There have been a bunch of remakes of this movie but the original is still the best.
6. Suspiria (1977)
This Dario Argento film combines amazing beauty and pure horror. I think it is the best horror movie ever made. All of the Art Nouveau sets are amazing and suck you into the suspense. The whole look of the film has been a huge influence for our band since day one. The colours affect the spookiness!
7. Fantastic Planet (1973)
The combination of the art, the story and the music provides an otherworldly experience.
8. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
I watched this movie many times without any sound while working at a restaurant in the Bay Area. One day, I finally watched it with sound. The beautiful soundtrack is by Phillip Glass. Not a typical documentary, nor a typical film in general. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the images tell the story, there is no dialogue. I loved it. Amazing cinematography with very thought-provoking images.
10. Rockers (1978)
This is the coolest movie ever, in my opinion. Nothing beats Burning Spear pulling two spliffs from his sock and singing a cappella on a moonlit beach.
11. Columbo – ‘Any Old Port in a Storm’ (1973)
I am a fan of the entire series but this is my all time favourite. The pairing of Peter Falk’s Detective Colombo against the mild mannered and murderous wine aficionado played by Donald Pleasance is perfect. Who doesn’t love Donald Pleasance?
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews