Tales From The Wounded Church

Film, Dreams, Etc.

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (1972) is an exceptional Italian “giallo” (thriller) that is a great example of its type and maybe even the best by its director, Sergio Martino, who made several of the best of these films and probably contributed significantly to their evolution (Mario Bava and Dario Argento did so more famously, but Martino no less notably).

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The giallo prefigured the American “slasher” film by featuring similar scenes of stylized violence, though plot-wise the films were much more like straight mysteries. Being products of the sixties and seventies, they often featured themes of repressed sexuality, skeletons in the squares’ closets, adultery, and the like. Stylistic elements included baroque music and stabbing killers with unseen faces wearing black leather gloves .

An argument can be (and has been) made for any of a number of Martino’s gialli being his best, but I’ll take Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key as a complex, something-in-it-for-everyone culmination of his work in the genre. Part whodunit slasher, part old-money-family-in-decay Gothic, part erotic incest thriller, part retelling of Poe’s The Black Cat through just those eyes. Bruno Nicolai’s score, which gives us thrash harpsichord-driven murder scenes, certainly doesn’t hurt.

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My favorite thing about this film, though, is that it affords a rare, maybe even unique opportunity for us to observe monobrowed, chisel-twisted Italian character actor Luigi Pistilli, veteran of Spaghetti Western secondary bad-guy roles, in a lead part. You will see this nowhere else. He does not disappoint.

Anita Strindberg is sublimely haggard as a cowed housewife who appears to go through the entire film with slept-on hair in a dirty nightgown. Edwige Fenech and Ivan Rassimov, usual suspects for the genre, are also featured. Also has one of my all-time favorite titles, which has little or nothing to do with the film. Such titular incongruity is, itself, not unusual for the giallo genre.

– The Acolyte

Across 110th Street

Across 110th Street (1972) is an ensemble film that manages to use what little time it has with its many characters to maximum effect, due probably in no small part to a lot of great lines delivered just right by a lot of great actors, and due also to just good fucking film making, getting the right shots and putting them together right. I’ve watched it numerous times, and upon each viewing, I notice something new, a new expression on a character’s face in a split-second shot where they’re reacting to something.

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It’s a heist film where the heist is the first scene and the guys trying to catch the perpetrators are as important to the story as the perpetrators, themselves. The caper in question involves robbing the Harlem rackets as they count out their take for the purpose of paying tribute to the Italian mob. It results in the shooting deaths of Harlem gangsters, Little Italy gangsters, and cops. Survivors of all three tribes scour Harlem for the killers.

Across 110th Street contains so many strong characters with strong drives, a lot of it simple enough, but it all fits together so well in this story about people fighting tooth and nail for things just beyond their reach, or things they have but must fight to keep, respect, position, a pension, a better life, or maybe just plain money in the pocket. However much this film may walk the line between seventies action land and straight-up gritty realism, it tends toward the latter and what it does not do is promise the audience an easy solution to the shit-show it portrays.

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Another thing Across 110th Street does not do is use violence to make its audience feel better. It uses violence to unsettle. There is really no one to root for (a pet peeve of mine is when this sentence is used as a criticism rather than a selling point) in the conventional sense.

This latest viewing, I found myself rooting for the arguably psychotic Jim Harris, played by Paul Benjamin. Anthony Quinn is sympathetic in his desperate vulnerability as a dinosaur cop who knows his days are numbered (“So what am I supposed to do ’cause I’m 55, eat shit?”), as is Yaphet Kotto as a guy trying to legitimately earn respect in a white man’s NYPD. Anthony Franciosa, whose sadistic racist bastard of a mafioso character is the closest thing the film has to a villain, is still also playing a guy who is overcompensating because he’s the mob boss’s son-in-law and he knows everyone is watching to see if he’s got anything below his belt.

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This film is filled with great performances, great scenes, great characters. A few of the actors were stars, or at least well-known character actors (Quinn, Kotto, Antonio Fargas, Burt Young), but a lot of them never showed up in anything else I liked this much. The music by Bobby Womack and JJ Johnson is as gritty seventies action movie as music gets. The location photography is great.

The ending may seem heavy-handed or pretentious in another film, but works fine for me here, mainly, I think, because what the final image symbolically portrays is looked at in the film from so many different angles. Across 110th Street has become as important to me as New York cinema of its era as Taxi Driver, Fingers, or just about anything else.

– The Acolyte

Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)

I always considered Michael Mann’s 1981 Thief  to be a kind of classic. It’s referenced in books about screenwriting, contains a lot of visual storytelling and symbols, and helped set the tone for an era of mainstream film making. Up until a couple of months ago, it had been years since I had actually seen it.

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Thief is the story of an ex-convict named Frank (James Caan) who works for himself as a professional robber. At that, he is quite successful. He pursues a woman (Tuesday Weld) with a similarly spotted past. His desire is to settle down and raise a family like “normal” people. Frank is adamant about the fact that he is self-employed and under the auspices of no organization. A mobster named Leo (Robert Prosky) wants to change all this and employ Frank’s talents to serve his own ends.

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An hour into my most recent viewing, I found myself thinking Thief  contained a lot of over-acting and unearned yelling, which was disappointing, since I’d always considered Caan’s performance to be one of the greats. I especially reacted this way to the scene where Frank yanks Tuesday Weld’s Jessie out of the bar and throws her in his car and they yell at each other and blah, blah, blah. Our society’s attitude toward such behavior has changed significantly, but even if it hadn’t, the sequence plays as over the top.

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But it’s also where things get interesting. The scene or its followup (location changes; interplay continues) establishes something essential about Frank’s philosophy, about what prison did to him, what he did to deal with it, and what he wants out of life that sheds light on the last few scenes of the film.

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After the first hour, after the defiant Frank finally succumbs to the relentless hard-sell of the Faustian bargain being offered by Prosky’s atypically diabolical Mephistopheles (brilliant casting and performance), when he and Jessie name their newly adopted child after Frank’s dead friend, when Frank gets roughed up by dirty cops, asks them if they ever considered working for a living, and calls them greasy motherfuckers, when Jim Belushi appears in his final scene as Frank’s friend and partner, whatever was rough about the first half of the movie proves to have been for a purpose.

It all comes together.

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Thief is a great, bleak, badass crime flick that indeed was seminal in so many ways. Frank’s dialogue about being state-raised, his uncompromising refusal to be beholden to anybody on either side of the law, his struggle to find his way to a life like everyone else has, his eventual failure and why it happens. The scenes of Frank physically destroying his own identity and literally burning it all down strike hard, as does the film’s portrayal of urban environments as simultaneously dazzling and treacherous, a portrayal facilitated by the photography of Donald Thorin and cocooned sublimely by Tangerine Dream’s score. Caan’s performance is great; the loud bravado of the first half of the film is setting things up for the payoff. In the end, he just walks away, but isn’t likely to get far. Thief holds up, after all.

– The Acolyte

The Babadook

Here is a film that lives up to the hype. The Babadook is an emotionally complex, viscerally evocative odyssey through the most challenging psychic terrain that skirts the line between horror and drama without failing at either, though it often comes close. The closer, the better. It is a film that takes one to many edges. It tells of the struggles of a young widow and her boy. It is named after a childhood boogeyman of writer/director Jennifer Kent’s own creation, said boogeyman being represented on-screen by Alex Juhasz’s amazing pop-up book. The book was designed exclusively for the film and makes me think of Edward Gorey and Ralph Steadman locked together in a dungeon being forced to design children’s books for the Tonton Macoute.

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The movie is driven by the performances of its two principle actors, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. Both do brilliant work. Without them, the film would be nothing, though it is certainly well written, directed, and photographed. Special effects are used sparsely and subtly and work when they appear, which is exactly what is needed.

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Based on some of the film’s more genre-oriented images, comparisons are inevitable to The Shining, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist. In my opinion, more spiritually apt comparisons would be to Phantasm, The Brood, Curse of The Cat People, and The Virgin Spring. The broad topography of that list should be telling. This film was not made in a vacuum, but you’ve never seen anything like it. When it is at its most intense, it is identifiably real. It will take you places you’ve been that you don’t want to return to. Ultimately, it will reward you. Anything more specific would just detract from the experience of what you should definitely do if you haven’t already, which is to watch this movie.

– The Acolyte

Dead Men Don’t Count

 

Dead Men Don’t Count is a Western from 1968 directed by Rafael Romero Marchent, who was born in Madrid in 1926 and whose brother, Joaquin Luis, directed the notorious Cutthroats Nine.

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It stars the stony-faced, very tall Anthony Steffen (an Anglicized marquee name for Italian/Brazilian/Prussian actor Antonio Luiz De Teffe) and American actor/producer Mark Damon as a pair of morally tarnished bounty hunters who stumble into an Arizona town in the midst of a land grab. Farmers are being strong-armed; the sheriff is in on it. We don’t know for sure until the end of the film, but it’s a safe bet it’s due to either oil or a railroad. So it plays very much like an American second feature from several decades earlier, except when the protagonists are brutally beating information out of people, hanged corpses are played for goofy laughs, and entire families are being slaughtered in cold blood to the tune of gothic organ music. B-Westerns from the 1930s were more violent than one might expect, but they weren’t this violent. Watching Dead Men Don’t Count is like entering an alternate dimension in which B-Western and Spaghetti Western sensibilities coexist in smooth-flowing narrative harmony. If that sounds like a good place to be, you will probably enjoy the film.

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It’s also a movie about two men, one young (Damon) and running so hard from buried emotions, he doesn’t know he has them, nor does he know much of anything else. It is a thoughtful touch that this character remains oblivious to the foundation-shaking revelations about his own life others have had by the end of the film. The other man (Steffen) is a hardened, battered mercenary who through the course of the film develops social responsibility that has probably long been missing from his life. He accepts the appointment of sheriff given him by ranchers he has only just met with pensive disbelief. Together, these men have a long history of violence; we know this because they have a shorthand for elaborate tactical plays that they communicate facilely in tense situations using simply the names of towns. “Like Abilene?” “Yeah, like Abilene.” Though the film itself focuses on gunfights, horse chases, romance, revenge, and comic relief (and does it all well), the standard western scenarios are populated and experienced by characters whose traits are detailed slyly and subtly. You could completely ignore this fact and still enjoy the movie as an atmospheric thrill ride, or dig a little deeper. The film works either way.

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Rafael Romero Marchent’s other Westerns as a director include Garringo (1969) and Revenge Of The Resurrected  (1972), both of which have a similar feel. It is worth noting that although many of the sixties films referred to as “Spaghetti Westerns” were Italian/Spanish co-productions that featured exterior locations in Spain, Dead Men Don’t Count is one of a number that were directed by actual Spaniards. These particular Spanish Westerns tended to blend more traditional Western story elements with their Spaghetti Western tropes. Their characters, though sometimes flawed and brutal, tended to be more on the side of law and order, and even when many of them weren’t, as in the case of Cutthroats Nine, the distinction was much clearer than in the Italo-Westerns. Once drawn, these lines could be crossed and explored in a different way than in the Italian-directed Spaghetti Westerns, the latter of which tended to be cynical and morally ambiguous and to sometimes contain left-wing political subtexts. I’m not sure whether this difference was a result of censorship in Spain under Franco, Spanish culture in general, or something else.

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From its early shootout in the yard of a ruined church, Dead Men Don’t Count is, above all, a trip to that place where all Westerns live. It is a place of chaos, guns and horses, childlike innocence, and untamed terrain. Marcello Giombini’s score transports you to that place using infectious guitar melodies, church organs, flutes, and wistful trumpets (there is some controversy as to whether Dead Man Don’t Count was scored by Giombini or by Riz Ortolani, or whether Ortolani scored some alternate cut  of the film, but the on-screen credit on both English-language copies of the film I have owned is to Giombino and it sounds like Giombini, who also scored Garringo, which also sounds great). The evocative western town set used in the film existed in Spain from 1963-1974 and appears in countless Spaghetti Westerns. The costumes and guns all look right and not chintzy, at least for a pulp western, and some have real panache. A gold-handled revolver figures prominently in the plot. The swagger of character actors like Raf Baldassarre, who has probably appeared in more Eurowesterns than all of their top-billed stars combined, brings something to the proceedings that you would not find in a careless production. Budget notwithstanding, this is no cheap knockoff. It is a WESTERN. The action and gunfights, the ominous approaches of bad men, the roaming camera shots, all are handled well. There is nothing here you haven’t seen before, but if you liked it then, you are going to like it in Dead Men Don’t Count.

– The Acolyte

Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The ’70s

Great documentary about the genre of Italian film inspired by the success of American movies like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Death Wish (though Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law was released the same year as that last one, so which private-citizen-turned-vigilante thriller came first is actually a point of contention) as well as by the colossal levels of street crime and home-grown terrorism in cities like Rome, Naples, and Milan during the anni di piombo, or “years of lead.” The resulting style of film was a uniquely Italian mixture of anti-establishment paranoia, class warfare, violence, car chases, and recklessly zealous police work.

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Eurocrime! does an excellent job of explaining the context in which these films were made, the types of personalities behind making them, and the style in which these personalities worked. It is filled with striking poster art and footage of numerous interviews with actors, stuntmen, directors, screenwriters, voice-over actors, and dubbing directors of various nationalities, including Franco Nero, Henry Silva, Joe Dallesandro, John Saxon, Luc Merenda, and Enzo Castellari himself. All these men have tales to tell; the film is brought to life by their mannerisms and quirks. Silva, especially, is great. Eurocrime! is cleverly conceived and edited, being broken up into chapters, driving its points home using the poster art, bits of the interviews, and film clips as evidence. Runs 127 minutes. Very informative and entertaining. Being a person with a love for and knowledge of these movies, I learned a lot I didn’t already know. If you are new to the Eurocrime genre, I doubt that this film will bore you. Scored with original music by various bands and artists, including Calibro 35, that captures the spirit of the music in the 70s films.

– The Acolyte

Kinji Fukasaku, Bunta Sugawara (RIP), and Cops Vs. Thugs

Violence is no fun. People don’t just fall down. They run away, struggle, fight back. Guns misfire. Hands shake on the trigger. In a massive brawl, you may not be able to tell who you’re hurting, or just what the fuck is going on at all. Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku conveyed all this brilliantly in his seminal yakuza (Japanese gangster) films of the 1970s. The phrase “shaky cam” had not yet been coined, but Fukasaku employed the technique as effectively as anyone. His employers at Toei Company favored hand-held camera work because it was fast and cheap, but Fukasaku used it for all the right reasons, just as he used freeze-frames, montages, and on-screen lettering to create a complex, enthralling, visceral experience that stayed brazenly enraged without ever alienating or boring its audience. He did so up until the day he died and he did so, in his heyday, making several films a year.

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Fukasaku’s last film, Battle Royale (2000), did more than just prefigure an entire series of American YA novels and their popular cinematic spawn with vastly more intelligence, insight, and narrative economy; it provided filmgoers with one more righteously angry feature-length meditation on the subjects he spent his career exploring, institutionally sanctioned violence, societal hypocrisy, friendship, the true nature of integrity, and the fact that no matter what happens, no matter how tight the squeeze, no matter how hard they try to make you think otherwise, you always have a choice.

As a video store employee, I enthusiastically recommended Fukasaku’s Battles series, a multi-film portrayal of the decades-long struggle between yakuza gangs over Hiroshima in the wake of World War II that begins with 1973’s Battles Without Honor And Humanity. A customer I’d done so for returned to the store saying he wouldn’t watch beyond the first film because he felt he could tell by its finale where the series was going. The ending to which he referred portrayed protagonist Hirono Shozo (Bunta Sugawara) shooting up the Buddhist altar at his friend’s funeral to punctuate his implied threat to his treacherous gang boss that, “I still have bullets left.” Sounds like the setup to a standard revenge trip, but what that customer never found out is that the series doesn’t go there. Hirono stays yakazu and grows old following the rules, never rising above his station as a back-door peasant underboss. Boss Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko) continues to grow rich off the backs of his men and the blood of young recruits without ever getting his hands dirty.

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The world of Fukasaku’s films is not about noble outlaws seeking revenge, it’s about the way things work. We may be watching a film about gangsters, but we recognize the hypocrisy, injustice, and desperation, and we recognize that the characters who get the least respect in the context of a given story are the ones with the most integrity. These things are universal. The films provide a vicarious thrill in that they portray a time and place (Japan in the years following World War II) where fighting fiercely and brashly for your piece of the pie may actually get you somewhere, but it also might get you dead, horribly maimed, or swallowed up by the system. The “system” is represented by a modern society rising up out of the black markets and ashes of cities like Hiroshima and Tokyo, by the cops and prisons, and by the yakuza themselves, these last representing as rigid a society as ever there was. Prison time is not something that punishes specific perpetrators; it is a duty assigned to a gang’s most expendable members. Hits are almost unequivocally carried out by quivering young boys. The ancient Japanese rituals of loyalty, punishment, and contrition, though they leave behind their fair share of armless, handless, fingerless men, are revealed to be silk scarves on a greedy pig. And the modern society risen from the ashes ostracizes, shuns, and crushes the brash, ferocious fighters who laid its foundations.

These are the things that pissed Fukasaku off.

He managed to relate them to his film-going audience in a way that invigorates and, above all, entertains.

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In the opening scene of Cops Vs. Thugs (1975), a swaggering Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara, who died last November at the age of 81) hassles a gang of kids in a car. He wears a leather coat, a scarf, and a hip-looking hat. After stealing the youths’ Zippo, shaking them down for money (ostensibly to pay the food vendor they just beat out of their sushi bill; Repo Man fans take note), and revealing that he knows who they represent, Kuno sends them off to bust heads with his blessing. We then launch into the opening credits, which roll over a montage of black-and-white photographs and Japanese calligraphy depicting the history of yakuza gangs in the city of Kurashima from 1945 until 1963, which is the year the movie starts. According to the on-screen type, it is based on real events. Over the next hour and forty minutes, we witness yakuza reporting each other to the police, yakuza drinking with police, drunken street brawls between yakuza and police, rapes, beatings, ultra-violent gang brawls, police brutality, and political corruption.

The core plot of the film involves a sort of passive-aggressive proxy war carried out by two factions of cops, each one representing a different yakuza group. Kuno is allied with the group led by underboss Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata), whose boss is in prison until partway through the film. As viewers, we sympathize with Kuno’s faction, since we start the movie with Kuno, see Kuno vulnerable, and are exposed to Kuno’s unique brand of integrity. We also like Hirotani and his right hand Tsukahara (the hulking, distinctly visaged Hideo Murota) because despite being brutal, arrogant gangsters, they are brutal, arrogant gangsters right out in the open. Their enemies are manipulative, duplicitous, and sneaky; their play for power involves big oil and manipulates politics and public opinion.

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At one point, Hirotani asks Kuno, “Who do we have to kill to solve this,” which in context is just sad. He and Tsukuhara don’t understand politics; they just want an honest fight. They are not going to get one. Kuno himself may be corrupt as all get-out, but he lives in a world that takes corruption for granted (Cops and its 1976 spiritual companion piece Yakuza Graveyard prefigure the character arc of a typical James Ellroy detective and are highly recommended to fans of that writer). He is a dirty cop who does not report the murderous yakuza who turns himself in to him both because he wants an up-and-coming yakuza in his pocket and because he is touched by the fact that the yakuza in question, who is in his apartment, is considerate enough to wash his own dishes after Kuno has fed him.

Morally complicated, just like real life.

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Bunta Sugawara starred in countless Fukasaku films and communicated the rage, vitality, and warts-and-all humanity of Fukasaku’s vision with superior aplomb. His raw, honest performances, along with the films themselves, should put an end to all rumours that Japanese emotions are not capable of boiling over the edges of the pot of their reputedly repressed culture with more than enough tumult to snuff out the stove burner. In Cops, Battles, and Street Mobster (1972) Sugawara plays indignant, terrified, enraged, and disarmed. He plays a terrified recruit, a seasoned outlaw role model, and a brutal young hoodlum with equal authenticity. Though the ages of his characters in these films span decades, the films themselves were made over the course of a few years.

Like just about every film Fukasaku made during this highly productive period, Cops Vs. Thugs contains numerous memorable sequences, like the one in which Kuno and his partner demoralize a gang member using brutality, deception, and an unauthorized conjugal visit. This scene is driven by the brilliant theme music of Toshiaki Tsushima, as is much of the rest of the film, and plays like the last word in coercive persuasion. There is a “hit” scene played against the musical counterpoint of an absurdly optimistic, matronly anthem (“hello little one, you’ll have a big future, this happiness will last” intermingles with screaming, tearing, and stabbing), and the climactic siege, complete with tear gas grenades, that ends with the final demonstration of Kuno’s complex morality and a striking turn by Murota as Tsukuhara (according to Fukasaku, the siege scenario was inspired by real-life Japanese student protests taking place when the film was made).

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In addition to lead actors like Bunta Sugawara, Tetsuya Watari (Yakuza Graveyard, Graveyard Of Honor), and Koji Tsuruta (Japan Organized Crime Boss, Sympathy For The Underdog), Fukasaku used many of the same actors in supporting roles, including the aforementioned Matsukata, Murota, and Kaneko. The presence of these actors, all quite accomplished, is a comfort and a thrill to anyone revisiting the director in an as-yet-unseen film. Fukasaku also cast Toei genre stars like Meiko Kaji (Yakuza Graveyard, Deadly Fight In Hiroshima), Sonny Chiba (Deadly Fight In Hiroshima), and Reiko Ike (Cops Vs. Thugs) in character roles into which they disappeared. It is easy to see why this director, though little known to Westerners outside of certain circles, is so highly respected in his native country. Battle Royale, Fukasaku’s last film (he died while in the process of directing its sequel, which was completed by his son Kenta), the adaptation of a 1996 novel set in a world where defiant teenagers are forced by the government to kill each other in a game, became one of Japan’s ten top-grossing films. It is a more than worthy bookend to a career that was all about fighting for each breath in a world that would deny us our right to do so.

– The Acolyte

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