A wuxia curio: The Delightful Forest (Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao, 1972)

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The Delightful Forest is a Shaw Brothers wuxia film that probably won’t win over anyone new to such things. It’s one of several movies the studio made based on the epic Chinese story The Water Margin, a tale easily long enough to support all of these. While the first, The Water Margin (also directed by Chang Cheh and Hsueh Li Pao in 1972) involved a huge cast of characters, TDF focuses on just one of them, acting as a prequel.

Wu Sung (Ti Lung) is renowned for killing a tiger with his bare hands. When he also kills his sister-in-law and her lover, to revenge his brother’s death, he is imprisoned. He is aided by the prison owner’s son, Shi En (Tien Ching), in return for ridding the town known as The Delightful Forest of the brutish Chiang Chung (Chu Mu). Getting rid of Chung isn’t so easy when he has a corrupt official on his side.

While The Water Margin is a film long enough to do its plot justice, TDF feels stretched out, moving slowly, with little sense of tension. Moreover, Song is not a complex character, and his superhuman feats are often rather silly. For most of the film, there’s no doubt he’s going to win every battle.

TDF’s strongest aspect is Lung himself. One of Shaw’s best martial arts stars, he’s pure class, strong both at acting and in action. He wrings everything he can out of the role.

This film is curious for a couple of other reasons. The soundtrack is taken straight from Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. That’s not uncommon for Chinese films of this era, but the tracks are used badly here. Meanwhile, it’s a laugh seeing Ching in this role – he tends to play sneaky characters (including in The Water Margin!) and it’s quite a change for him to have some moral fibre here.

Although most of the fights in TDF are not inspired, and there’s a couple of jarring edits, the last battle is excellent in its own right. It takes place in a wealthy household, with Song fighting Chung, two beaurecrats and a host of guards. Chang Cheh films often show their heroes fighting their way through hundreds of extras, but this is more believable in such close quarters. The fight unfolds with elegance and brutality. It’s a shame that the story has been so thin, without developing any emotional investment.

Song could quite plausibly not walk away from this fight. However, the film ends with him donning the monk’s disguise that the character wears in The Water Margin and its sequel, All Men Are Brothers. And so, TDF fails as a standalone film, ensuring that completionists are its best audience.

Enter Yuen Biao: Knockabout (Sammo Hung, 1979)

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Yuen Biao had worked as an acrobatic stuntman in Hong Kong films throughout the 1970s, and finally made his mark as a leading man in Knockabout, Sammo Hung’s fourth directorial effort. Biao plays Yipao, close friend of Ka-Yan Leung’s Tipao. The two are con-artists who are frequently bested by Fat Beggar (Hung). They attach themselves to a skilled master, Silver Fox (Lau Kar-Leung), who turns on them when they discover that he’s a wanted murderer. Yipao must get on Beggar’s good side to learn the skills he needs to defeat Wu-Tai.

This film is simply aiming for action and comedy, with no goal other than to entertain. The comedy may make or break it for the viewer: it’s non-stop, over-the-top slapstick all the way. Plot doesn’t matter, with breaks between fights rarely lasting more than a few minutes. The characterisation is also quite basic and, rather damningly, none of the characters are especially likeable.

The martial arts is not impressive at the film’s beginning, reflecting Yipao and Tipao’s inability to defend themselves. It’s well over an hour into the film before Biao’s skills truly shine through, with the Beggar training him in cruel and unusual ways before the two of them launch into a lengthy battle with Silver Fox. The uses of a jump rope during the training and a rope of thorns during the final fight are unmissable. Biao is capable of amazing feats and his timing with mentor Hung is fantastic.

Biao is confident and charismatic as a leading man, pulling off the comedy on the same level as Leung (a more experienced, but usually more serious actor). Kar-Leung is funny in a different way as Silver Fox – he walks around with a self-serious, slightly sad expression, looking like a mopey 70s singer-songwriter. His character’s shift into pure evil makes no sense, but he’s still fun to watch. Hung, however, is highly irritating as the Beggar, pulling endless face twitches in every scene.

Anyone with a low tolerance for slapstick martial arts will not enjoy Knockabout. Nonetheless, the skill shown by Kar-Leung, Hung and, especially, Biao in the last half hour is something special, and the most enduring aspect of the film.

A subversive, quirky Western: Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, 1972)

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One possible reason that the Western has become a less popular genre in the past few decades is that audiences aren’t as willing to accept (or at least celebrate) the notion of Manifest Destiny, or the type of masculinity usually represented by the hero. Though this is a positive thing, it’s also something of a shame, because not every Western, past or present, plays into the same values. Most people who claim to hate Westerns seem to think they haven’t changed since the forties, but as often as the typical Western lead has been an unemotional, Indian-killing white man, there’s plenty of room within the genre for different points of view. Indeed, with his directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, Sidney Poitier made an unconventional Western that manages to be fun as well.

Poitier plays Buck, a wagonmaster who does his best to escort former slaves to land where they can make new homes. These people are often pursued by Southerners and forced to return to their former owners. When Buck falls afoul of the Preacher (Henry Belafonte), a fast-talking conman, he’s made a devious enemy. However, after the Southerners attack his latest wagon train, Buck, the Preacher, and Buck’s lover Ruth (Ruby Dee) are the only people who can get back the settlers’ money and lead them to safety.

Buck and the Preacher is something of a buddy movie. The stoic and moral Buck stands in contrast to the eccentric, stylish Preacher. Of course, once Preacher starts caring about people other than himself, they’re going to make a great team, and the actors play their parts well. Surprisingly, though, there’s room in the partnership for Ruth too.

The film has a laid-back sense of style about it. There’s some odd framing in a few shots, but the film feels nicely quirky. The soundtrack, which combines harmonica with a lively bassline, is certainly off-kilter. A scene where the lead trio rob a bank so seamlessly that they don’t even need to say a word is impressively cool.

Buck and the Preacher’s plot is fairly predictable and the pacing is a mite slow, but it’s hard not to like this film. Though it takes on a much overlooked, weighty subject, the overall tone is optimistic. It’s also impossible not to admire a Western that mostly stars black men, gives a major role to a black woman, avoids making all the white characters bigots, and respects its Indian characters. Westerns need not be riddled with racist cliches (even if, like most Hollywood films, they often are) and not every film in the genre is cut from the same cloth. Buck and the Preacher reuses many familiar elements but, with only a few changes, becomes something markedly different. When so many more modern Westerns, from There Will Be Blood to The Ballad of Little Jo to Deadwood to The Proposition, take a heavy tone, this film’s lighter touch is appreciable, too.

“It’s a bum’s world for a bum”: Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973)

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Watching Emperor of the North, it’s hard to believe that Robert Aldrich was also capable of directing such high camp as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing of Sister George. Women only speak a couple of lines in this film, and are treated entirely as sex objects or background figures. Emperor of the North is all about men – and one of its strengths is that it depicts the unique word of certain men in such convincing detail.

The film is set in the Great Depression, a time when hobos rode the rails. Unemployed and forced to live outside of society, the hobos had their own culture with traditions and norms. As a rare man with a job, it’s a point of pride for train conductor Stack (Ernest Borgnine) that he takes his work seriously. Not only is he determined to prevent any hobos from riding his train, he’s willing to kill any who try. For No. 1 (Lee Marvin), a hobo famous amongst his kind, pride is something worth risking his life for. The stakes of this film are nothing more than a man hitching a ride on a train – but this may well mean a fight to the death.

No. 1’s plans are complicated by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young man new to being a hobo, who’s determined to make a name for himself. It’s through the interactions between the two –sometimes willingly given lessons on No. 1’s part, sometimes clumsy attempts at imitation on Cigaret’s– that we get many insights into the peculiarities of hobo life. How do you stop a train? Why wear a belt rather than suspenders? How hard should you fight to hang onto a turkey? The slang flows thick and fast; pay attention, and you might work out just what an Emperor of the North Pole (the film’s original title) is to a hobo. It probably means something different to you and me.

Aside from an action sequence set in early morning fog, which doesn’t quite look convincing, Emperor of the North is a well-made film. The trains could not have been easy to handle, but the scenes taking place on them feel believable. Some moments don’t even look especially safe. You may never have expected to be watching a film set in this world, but you’ll easily get drawn into it. Of course, if the time period has a particular appeal for you, definitely seek the film out.

And then there’s the actors. Carradine is appropriately annoying as the big-toothed, thick-skulled Cigaret, while Marvin is made for roles such as the taciturn yet charismatic No. 1. Borgnine is the standout, however; he makes Stack one of cinema’s ultimate sadists, petty and ferocious even in a goofy conductor’s hat.

The film culminates in a faceoff between Stack and No. 1 that has to be seen to be believed, one that’s a whole different kind of nasty to the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford conflict in Baby Jane. It’s to Aldrich’s credit that he could make such different kinds of films, and to this level of quality.

Taking a Shot: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)

There’s a moment in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu that can be praised as an example of the creativity that often underpins practical effects. However, I think the shot is interesting not just for how it is achieved, but in how it is used.

Lucy Harker sits at her mirror; all is normal, and then her door is opened by what seems to be a shadow.

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It slowly advances, closer and closer…

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And then someone more solid than a shadow appears. It was Dracula all along.

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The first shadow was cast by another man, while Klaus Kinski stood to the right of the camera, waiting to step into view. The effect was a matter of getting everything positioned in the right place.

Of course, Dracula does not cast a reflection. We’ve seen this in plenty of other vampire movies, but hopefully have forgotten it as we are drawn into the surprise and horror that Lucy feels. Imagine if the scene played differently, if Dracula and Lucy were in a room, and she glanced into a mirror and screamed at his lack of reflection. That would probably get little reaction out of us jaded viewers, but Herzog makes better choices here. The advancing shadow is far creepier and, like Lucy, we don’t immediately understand what is happening. This moment is creative in more ways than one.

Olivier vs. Caine: Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)

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Sleuth is a gimmick movie in which the gimmick actually works. Adapted from a play by Anthony Shaffer, it’s a two-hander between Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Olivier is Andrew Wyck, a mystery writer with too much money and too much spare time who is obsessed with puzzles and games. His estranged wife, Marguerite, is on the verge of marrying Milo Tindle (Caine), a mild-mannered hairdresser who’s the son of an Italian immigrant. Upon learning this, Wyck invites Milo to his country mansion, and their congenial chat turns into a confrontation, which turns into a game, which turns into another game, with escalating consequences. Wyck’s plans for Milo don’t go perfectly, however, and he soon finds himself partaking of a new game, at his own expense.

For the most part, this film only involves two characters. It’s worth seeing simply for how well it manages to do this; it makes sense for most of the action to be contained within one set, and the plot twists keep the story interesting. Even if the audience is a step ahead of the characters, there’s still small details or double meanings to appreciate. There’s also too many clever lines to pick up in one viewing.

Olivier is ideal in the role of an irritating old ham, but handles the weightier moments better than Caine, who at this point in his career was better at yelling than crying. Caine mostly plays to type, but does get to stretch himself. He would return to Sleuth in 2007, playing Wyck this time, opposite Jude Law. The idea is irresistible.

My main issue with this film is that it veers towards being too self-indulgent. It becomes its most stagey when it’s aware of its own gimmick, and allows Olivier and Caine to perform and show their interplay rather than pushing the story forward. The dialogue can become too dense, with a feeling that the film is running on the spot. It’s 133 minutes long; although it does a remarkably fine job of being engaging despite its narrow focus, it could have been better with the script edited down.

Still, Sleuth is near-essential viewing for how well it succeeds at its gimmick. Two guys in one house, talking for more than two hours? It can be done.

Grave and grim: The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979)

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The China Syndrome’s warning about the dangers of nuclear power could hardly have been more timely; the film was released only days before the Three Mile Island incident. This message, however, in no way lessens how successful The China Syndrome is as entertainment. It stars Jane Fonda as Kimberly Wells, a popular TV reporter who wants to move away from puff pieces and into serious stories. While filming at a nuclear power plant, she witnesses an accident that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) barely brings under control. Her cameraman and old friend, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), films the whole event, but The Powers That Be block them from making the story public. While they investigate further, Godell reluctantly realises that the plant is far more dangerous than anyone could have guessed.

The China Syndrome is a grave film. There’s no extra-diegetic music, outside of the title sequence. Each shot is carefully placed. The plot moves, for the most part, with restraint, and a pivotal moment occurs with great understatement. Aside from its stars, the cast look like ordinary people, grounding the film in reality. All of this only adds to the tension and a belief that by the end of the film, anything could happen. A happy ending is in no way guaranteed.

Jane Fonda plays her role in a natural fashion, and shows a certain overlap in Kimberley’s onscreen and offscreen demeanours. She may have to read ridiculous stories, but something of her compassionate side is evident in her delivery. Likewise, her confidence in front of the camera isn’t an act, but part of her everyday composure. We can feel her frustration at being used as eye candy by her bosses.

Lemmon is adept at playing anxiety, which is vital for Jack. The character is in a position of incredible responsibility, while having no real control over how the plant is run. For much of the film, his fears are tempered by his trust in the plant’s design. It’s a credit to how Lemmon and the writers construct the character that when Jack finally succumbs to sheer panic, it shows just how dire things are: he’s not someone who loses control without reason.

Michael Douglas produced this film, and spent years trying to get it made. He’s also a last minute replacement for Richard Dreyfuss, who was supposed to play Richard. Dreyfuss would have been far better in this role, which requires a sort of edgy energy that Douglas can’t give without being unlikeable. As it is, Douglas is an irritant, but one that can be overlooked.

The China Syndrome seems sceptical about the notion of truth, or at least the way that the public is aware of it. Who will accept Kimberley’s story? Who won’t be bought? Who will make the difficult choices? Will the facts see the light of day, or will they be distorted? What can be done when big business has the power? Kimberley, Jack and Richard’s efforts come at great cost but may not, in the end, have done any good at all.

Where’s Friedkin when you need him?: The Seven-Ups (Philip D’Antoni, 1973)

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The Seven-Ups is a competent 70s thriller that has little unique to offer. The title refers to an expert team of New York Cops, led by Buddy (Roy Scheider), who use undercover and surveillance methods to get results. A group of men who are kidnapping Italian mobsters for ransom money complicate the Seven-Ups’ operations.

Although this film has a complex plot, it doesn’t have much else to fill it out. Scheider puts in a good performance, but the script doesn’t quite push this decent cop’s moral dilemmas far enough. The other characters, and actors, are not particularly interesting.

Sonny Grosso, the cop upon whom Scheider’s role in The French Connection was based, devised this film’s story. His influence seems clear in Buddy’s affinity for his Italian neighbourhood, something that was important to Grosso but wasn’t relevant in The French Connection. It’s more significant here.

With Philip D’Antoni (The French Connection‘s producer) directing, The Seven-Ups also has something of that film’s attitude towards the audience, explaining little and expecting them to try to keep up. Although The French Connection has a sensibility that can’t be replicated in a film that’s made safely and legally, not to mention without the sheer nerve of William Friedkin (look no further than The French Connection 2), The Seven-Ups does hold its own in presenting New York in a gritty and realist way.

This film’s standout sequence is a car chase lasting about ten minutes. Unfortunately, it closely resembles the iconic chase from Bullitt, right down to the size difference between the cars and the same stunt driver. This chase is exciting and superbly filmed, but it’s no coincidence that D’Antoni also produced Bullitt.

The Seven-Ups feels blatantly similar to more famous cop thrillers of its era. For this reason I’d only recommend it to to people who like these films, and are looking for more of the same.

Glamour, grit and bad plotting: Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)

Faye Dunaway is Laura Mars, a photographer who sees more than she should.

Despite being an ultimately unsatisfying film, Eyes of Laura Mars has a lot going for it. Laura Mars is a renowned fashion photographer, known for producing violent and sexual images, played by Faye Dunaway. She begins to have psychic experiences in which she can see through the eyes of a killer – a killer who seems to be getting ever closer to her. While Detective Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates, Laura is surrounded by suspects, including her ex-husband, Michael (Raul Julia), her ex-criminal chauffeur, Tommy (Brad Dourif), and her manager, Donald (Rene Auberjonois).

Though Dunaway shows some of the over-acting she’d become infamous for in Mommie Dearest, she makes Laura likeably compassionate and intelligent. The film takes concepts of objectification seriously and tries to explore them through Laura’s work. I don’t think it’s especially successful, but it’s still interesting to see Laura’s attempts to make people acknowledge violence by linking it with beauty and sex.

FASHION!

Laura Mars is a fascinating film to look at. It shows the grittiness of late 70s New York’s streets and waterfronts as well as the glamour of the city’s fashion industry. The photoshoots, accompanied by disco music, are full of energy. Laura’s photos were supplied by Helmut Lang, and having this fashion giant’s work in the film gives it added authenticity.

70s New York: not all pretty.

The costumes in Laura Mars are not only stylish, but have strong character touches. Laura often wears clothes that wrap around and conceal her (including an outfit that manages to combine two types of purple plaid), giving a sense of her introversion. (Though there’s plenty of shots of Dunaway’s legs, of course.) Donald dresses for drama, especially with the suit he‘s wearing at the beginning of the film. Tommy, meanwhile, clearly emulates some of his musical idols with his clothing and hair. He has a chauffeur’s uniform for special events, and that he would wear the cap with his regular clothes when he feels the need indicates how seriously he takes his job, and his wish to be respected.

Rene Auberjonois: fabulous when called for.

The best part of this film, I would say, is that it gives great character actors Auberjonois and Dourif substantial parts. Donald is camp and funny, but is also authoritative. Auberjonois makes him a good friend and manager for Laura, while still keeping him a suspect. Tommy is devoted to Laura, but has a mad-eyed desperation that marks him as a wild card. We know, in the present day, that Dourif is typecast as dangerous crazies – but given that this is an early role for him, should we make this assumption about Tommy? These two actors are always a pleasure to watch, and the charged dynamic they create between is other is on its own enough to make Laura Mars worthwhile.

Brad Dourif’s crazy eyes: character clue, red herring, or did he just sit on something?

On to the film’s downside. Its script, penned by John Carpenter, is badly in need of a few more rewrites. It’s far too dependent on a romance between Laura and Neville; I suspect this is in there to try to make the film more appealing to women, but it’s totally uninteresting. Jones’s performance is a bit of a dud, and his scenes with Dunaway lack believability.

Tommy Lee Jones: not very good in this.

The film’s resolution is where it falls apart. This concept has a clear and satisfying inbuilt way for Laura to deal with the murderer: if she’s holding a gun while he heads towards her, she would be able to see through his eyes and know where he was, and where to shoot. It would be a reversal of the other times in the film where her second sight makes her helpless, and a great way to end the story.

Unfortunately, Laura Mars whittles its suspects off until only one remains. Then it reveals information that the audience could not possibly have guessed, and that depends strongly on further suspension of disbelief. As well as being a stark contrast to the way the film carefully explained Laura’s abilities earlier in the story, it’s poorly paced and it’s unconvincing on an emotional level. This is only a bigger shame because Laura Mars, with its its intriguing concept, interesting characters, and great style, so clearly had the potential to be better than it is.

Auberjonois, Dourif, and their 70s hair are better than you. And this movie.

The power of Burton: The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)

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The only two Richard Burton films I’ve seen are The Medusa Touch and Where Eagles Dare, which is pretty unfortunate, I know. But while anyone could have played his role in Where Eagles Dare, I don’t even want to consider someone else portraying John Morlar in The Medusa Touch.

Morlar is a novelist who somehow survived having his skull stove in and his brains spilled onto his living room carpet. Brunel (Lino Ventura), the police inspector investigating the attempted murder, finds that Morlar’s psychiatrist, Doctor Zonfeld (Lee Remick), has some unusual things to say about her patient. He believes that he caused terrible things to happen with the power of his mind: not just the deaths of his nanny, parents, and wife, but disasters larger and far more dangerous.

Although Morlar is presently in the hospital, comatose and attached to a variety of machines and with his head held together by bandages, Burton is an inescapable presence. He appears in flashbacks neatly tied into Brunel’s conversations with people who knew Morlar, and as a voice when Brunel reads the author’s diaries.

Burton is perfect as Morlar because he does not so much as play the part as get under your skin. Who else could so effectively haunt the story from the past, could make Morlar such a forceful, memorable figure, could make you go “Eeyargh!” every time he appears unexpectedly onscreen? Morlar is sharply intelligent, with the verbosity of a natural writer, and filled with contempt for the human race that is born out of his isolation and his perceived capacity for (self-)destruction. With his weathered face and depth-filled eyes, Burton gives Morlar intensity and madness and a melding of passionate emotions with an ever-working mind. He hardly seems to need supernatural powers to compel a woman to leap to her death. He makes a startlingly brilliant choice of how to deliver “Telekinesis!” as Brunel’s eyes fall across that single word written by Morlar’s hand. His threat to put his fist through Zonfeld’s face, should she suggest that what happened to Morlar’s only child was a mere coincidence, is unbelievably vicious. TMT is a tangibly unsettling film, and much of the credit for that goes to Burton.

I won’t say that the film would be worthless without Burton, but the last fifteen minutes, in which he hardly appears, are pretty poor. They involve an interminably long build-up to a disaster that is unsatisfying because it barely involves any characters that we care about. It’s quite a letdown, though the unrelentingly bleak ending nearly makes up for this.

TMT does have other things to recommend it. Nearly every character is written with some interesting or unusual detail. Brunel is a Frenchman working in England for a short time, which is a point of discussion during several scenes. We don’t see Zonfeld’s personal life, but the hints at it show that there’s more to her beyond her role in the plot. From Morlar’s neighbour (Robert Lang) to his publisher (Derek Jacobi!), this film’s minor characters are not flatly written or played, which keeps it feeling fresh, and keeps the story’s direction unpredictable.

Other parts of TMT are also effectively creepy. Take the fakeout scare when Brunel’s sergeant surprises him in Morlar’s apartment. It works because of Michael J. Lewis’s subtle, unnerving score and the suggestiveness of the eerie art prints in Morlar’s collection. Who would have “The Scream” in black and white? Morlar does. And there’s a moment of catastrophe that may involve some dated special effects (this is 1978, after all), but is a brilliant coming together of acting, sound, and cinematography.

With use of films taken of supposed paranormal experiments, intense excerpts from Morlar’s writings, and suggestions that The Powers That Be are interested in his abilities, TMT creates a strong feeling of paranoia. It may not be Burton’s greatest film, and it may have a disappointing ending and a couple of red herrings left unexplained, but it is a frightening and inventive oddity well worth seeking out.