Goliath and the Sins of Babylon - 1963
Goliath (Mark Forest) wanders into a percolating rebellion in the kingdom of Nephyr on the Persian Gulf. This Goliath has no resemblance to the biblical giant who fought for the Philistines and was clobbered in the head with creek stones by David, instead he is a traveling adventurer who is looking for injustices to battle (and in the original version of the film in Italian he isn't even named 'Goliath,' but is 'Maciste,' a character that appears in approximately 50 films from the silent era up to the last one, 1964's The Invincible Brothers Maciste. In these films, Goliath/Maciste is usually a simple fellow who uses his great strength, and depending upon the scriptwriter, his cunning, to outwit evildoers who are perennially victimizing beautiful women and a helpless peasantry.)
In his first confrontation in Goliath and the Sins of Babylon he starts off by grabbing a soldier by the nose (who is tormenting a beautiful female captive) who he turns around and sends flying with a smack across the face, leaving a harsh looking red handprint. When a far larger group of armed soldiers appear to arrest Goliath, he walks smiling into their group ready to defeat them all with just his bare hands. He makes a good start at doing so but is rescued from the escalating skirmish by two horsemen who lift him up by the arms between their two horses and race him to safety elsewhere in the city.
These men are actually from a secret group of rebels within the kingdom, but Goliath mistakenly takes them for a professional band of gladiators. They ask him to join their group, but he dismisses them with the rather ironic statement of "I have no desire to change trades, much less become a gladiator, a man who kills to amuse others." After he comes to understand that they're only posing as gladiators as they prepare their revolt, he then agrees to help, declaring them a band of 42 freedom fighters, but this number is immediately amended by Arnaldo Fabrizio (as a sarcastic dwarf fighter who is adopted as their "mascot") bringing the total fighting force officially to "forty-two and a half."
The ruler of Nephyr is a regent king named Pergasos (Piero Lulli) who took the place of his dead brother while the dead king's daughter, Princess Regina (José Greci), waits to rule Nephyr after she marries (Pergasos is a treacherous Uncle and plans to make certain he will not lose the throne, hiring assassins to eliminate competitors). Meanwhile the kingdom is tyrannized by distant Babylon ruled by King Kalfus (we actually see very little of Babylon, despite the movie title). Kalfus demands 30 virgins a year to be rounded up from Nephyr and sent to him for sacrifice, and he sends his understudy Morakeb (Erno Crisa) to keep an eye on things. (King Kalfus should actually keep an eye on Morakeb, he is a dangerous plotter with highly objectionable ethics when it comes to his loyalty.)
Goliath will defeat the beautiful Regina in a chariot race and thus has the legal right to marry her (these scenes are like Ben Hur redux, though with fewer horses and the stunts are mostly "falling horse" tricks, but it is impressive all the same, with a large set that mimics quite a bit of Wyler's movie). After winning the race on the track despite tricks and traps, Goliath declines his right of marriage into the royal family since he knows Regina is secretly the sweetheart of his warrior companion Xandros (Giuliano Gemma). What Xandros doesn't realize is that the maiden Chelima who sneaks away from the palace to meet with him who he thinks is only a lady-in-waiting at the palace is actually Regina herself, and thus he is in line to marry into the throne, that is if Pergasos cannot stop him first.
One of the main (intentional) humorous features of Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is the activities of the dwarf Fabrizio who is frequently the monkey wrench that fowls up the bag guys plots which seem to regularly outwit Goliath and his forty-two fighters. There's bad jokes about his height, as might be expected for 1963, such as when Fabrizio introduces Goliath to the faux gladiators and they immediately ask:
"He must be a shrimp like you?"
He responds: "He's built the same. But, taller."
In between the jokes about Fabrizio's size, the character ends up saving everyone's skin over and over, and his sarcasm toward the rest of the cast is deserved.
Like many of the Maciste movies, Goliath faces a test of endurance, this one seemingly hatched out of Edgar Allan Poe, with the trap featuring spears falling from the ceiling one at a time toward the chained Goliath waiting in agony to be skewered. Instead of a swinging blade descending slowly (like Poe's "the Pit and the Pendulum") these steel barbed spears keeping stopping just inches from various parts of Goliath's frame. At this point the camera work, which is rather preoccupied for the full 120 minute film with observing the various musclemen on screen (or José Greci in her various gowns), now concentrates exclusively on Mark Forest's anatomy. He is carefully lit (and oiled) from angle after angle, and this is somehow a penultimate moment for the movie considering how much importance it is given. But, like the Joker getting tired of his trap and leaving just before it finally will kill Batman, Morakeb exits the torture chamber before it's over by saying "..the waiting no longer amuses me..." Goliath/Maciste will of course be off the table quickly and back in the fight.
If Goliath and the Sins of Babylon seems visually familiar, one reason is that the people generally dress like the Hebrew slaves from Ten Commandments, the servant girls in the palace like the entourage around Elizabeth Taylor from Cleopatra, and the aristocracy look like Romans (after all, the cast is mostly Italian) dressed in robes from Spartacus. The royal palace guards are suited like the spike-helmeted invaders from El Cid, and troops of the empire sometimes are in standard Roman legionary gear. It's a mishmash but I don't know if it's from budget constraints or just an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to costuming. Morakeb and King Pergasos seem to have new outfits in nearly every scene, mostly featuring metal discs on their robes, and this makes for an unintentionally funny moment when we finally get a good look at Bablyon's evil King Kalfus (Paul Muller) and he is wearing enormous giant discs on his outfit.
Goliath and the Sins of Babylon is a hybrid film that can't help but look derived from Ben Hur, Spartacus, pirate and gladiator films and any number of other Italian peplum precursors. Director Michele Lupo gets good stunt work from the many action sequences, and the costuming and sets are fairly impressive. José Greci as the chariot-racing princess has to carry all the weight for femaledom since the movie is heavily populated with testosteroned fighting men, and she is fine in that role and a welcome respite from all the bicep flexing. Mark Forest is better than most in the acting department while playing Maciste/Goliath, and Giuliano Gemma has the expressive ability to look pained or anything else by just changing his face, and considering how wooden much of the cast is before the camera, any scene with Gemma (though he looks like a skinny boy compared to the beefy men populating the screen) suddenly improves considerably. The editing is tight and fast, particularly when working through the many fight scenes, though only our main protagonists are really giving it a lot of effort, if you look into the background there seems to be too many extras weakly swinging swords and axes without much conviction, as if they're living through take #79 of the scene.
The Maciste movies (and those like them, from the 1950s and 60s) are considered a mostly forgotten, specialty area of cinema in this day and age. The large number of them resulted in a refining of the main story idea of battling warriors and their effective leaders facing all odds in the name of justice. It isn't hard to see a direct link between Star Wars and the many comic book superhero movies of today with this (Italian) phenomenon. If you update Maciste/Goliath, Princess Regina, the dwarf and his sarcasm to the 21st century, you have something like Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.
Poster art by Kudzu [above]
Three Bad Men - 1926
John Ford's silent western 3 Bad Men isn't Ford's cleaned up Three Godfathers from 1948, but there are quite a few similarities, along with Ford's particular brand of sentimental affection for tough scoundrels discovering a vein of golden morality within themselves when the pressure is on. Olive Borden is a suddenly orphaned young woman whose father is murdered in the middle of Ford's American west, and a trio of usually drunk petty crooks become her guardians (though she talks to them as if she thinks she is hiring them), primarily because the leader of the three (George O'Brian) can see that if left unattended, the local sheriff (Lou Tellegen) who sidelines as a quasi-pimp, will take her under his unappetizing wing. O'Brian's character of Dan O'Malley spends part of the film wondering where his sister is (Priscilla Bonner), only to discover she was taken in by the sheriff earlier and ended up in a brothel. When a scene of revelation about what has happened to his sister finally occurs, the brother will spend a segment of the film chasing the sheriff and literally taking down door after door with his bare hands, an inventive series of chasing and fighting that Ford worked into some of his other movies, a stylistic tic that Ford had refined so well that two decades later he could parody himself in the long (and funny) epic brawl of The Quiet Man.
In the course of the movie, we understand the heavy drinking and tough talking "3 bad men" of the title have hearts of gold, but Ford's story* makes them prove it, which means they won't make it out of the movie alive. However tragic and outrageous Ford's story is, though, he ladles in a lot of comic humour which helps to disguise the fact he is reaching under disguise to pull on the audiences heart-strings. Like with his version of Three Godfathers which reduces the dilemma of a young woman and her helpless infant put into the hands of outlaws, Ford succeeds where so many other film makers would just end up with a maudlin hash.
* Story is from Herman Whitaker's novel "Over the Border" with an adaptation by John Stone with titles by Ralph Spence and Malcolm Stuart Boylan.
Alive, or Preferably, Dead - 1969
Giuliano Gemma and Nino Benvenuti are brothers Monty and Ted in this Italian comedy-western movie which also features Sydne Rome. Gemma and Rome are fine (Benvenuti is better known as a professional boxer with three middleweight championships) but the film has a hard time accomplishing its goal of laughter. Stunts are over-the-top and this adds real humor to the story of train-robbing and kidnapping, and as long as bullets are flying and horses* are running the movie seems like it's on the verge of improving to a level to match it's production budget, but then the dialogue reasserts the dopey sense of pure artifice and you can see why the dubbed release resorted to such an incredibly exploitative title in it's American release as "Sundance Cassidy and Butch the Kid." Gemma has made other well known westerns (such as Day of Anger) so the incongruity of Alive, or Preferably, Dead seems to reside with it's lackluster writing. Director Duccio Tessari shows off the Italian "west" well and visually generates more funny with his camera than the script does with its words.
*Horse and rider stunts are at times so extreme that after they tumble I was wondering if either would be able to get up again without assistance.
New Kino Lorber release
The Big Country (1958) 60th Anniversary HD Blu-Ray - Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons and Burl Ives in a visually epic western tale which diminishes in size once the story hones in onto the home life of Ives' character (Rufus Hannassey) and his relationship with his rattlesnake son Buck (Chuck Conners). Large scale cinematography all around. Story is mostly concerned with what Westerns (when not devoted to gunfire), are about, that is, land ownership (especially over a place called "the Big Muddy") and that peculiar 1950s obsession, sons' relationships with their fathers. Peck is a "fish out of water" sea captain who gives up the salt for the affections of the spoiled Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) and has to make adjustments when he sees how goofy her relationship is with her father (Charles Bickford as Major Henry Terrill). Chuck doesn't have a Dad in this film to worry about, but he does have to sort out why he instantly dislikes Peck's grounded sailor. Jean Simmons calmly steals a lot of the scenes she is in. AMAZON: The Big Country (60th Anniversary Special Edition) (2 Discs)
From the Amazon description:
-Audio Commentary by Noted Cultural Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
-Directed by William Wyler - 60 Minute Documentary
-Wyler Doc Outtakes with Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Billy Wilder
-Interviews with Cecilia Peck, Carey Peck and Tony Peck
-Interview with Fraser Heston
-Interview with Catherine Wyler
-Fun in the Country - Featurette
-Larry Cohen on Chuck Connors
-Original Theatrical Trailer
-Two Animated Image Galleries
New releases from Twilight Time
Jane Russell's THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER (1956) is coming on limited edition blu-ray on July 17th, 2018 by Twilight Time Movies. There will only be 3000 copies made.
Other Twilight Time recent Blu-Ray releases:
Birth of a Nation
Five Steps to Danger
Geronimo: An American Legend
My Sister Eileen
Next Stop, Greenwich Village
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By AKA The Paris Express
My Gal Sal
The Thin Man - 1934 - Dir. Director: W.S. Van Dyke - - It's hard to say whether this was meant to be a straight-up who-done-it film or not, yet it certainly contains all the plot mechanics of such, but with Powell and Loy cracking each other up onscreen it has a feel of a comedy without the intentional screwball spin. Scientist turns up missing and his daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) frantically pressures the retired detective Nick Charles (Powell) into service to sort it out. Along for the sleuthing is Mrs. Charles (Loy) who matches Mr. Charles' unconventional methods drink for drink (this film portrays them extinguishing one bottle after another and I've never seen two more effective - - and charming - - Hollywood alcoholics). A roster of possible suspects gets piled up but Nick Charles cuts through the circumstantial evidence with wit, timing, cleverness and a martini. This was the first of six Thin Man movies, and while the later films have their merits and often superior writing, none are as fresh and spontaneous as this one. Incidentally, the "Thin Man' of the title isn't Nick Charles, but the murder victim, but like the transference of the name "Frankenstein" from the mad inventer onto his monster, Wm. Powell's detective character was saddled with the moniker.
Baal - 1970 - Dir. Director: Volker Schlondorff - - German language film about a self-destructive poet who offers rhyme as dialogue amid scenes in which he prosecutes an anti-human crusade against anyone foolish enough to take up with him (for example, Margarethe von Trotta as Sophie who is made pregnant and thereafter shortly abandoned on the roadside) or Ekart (Sigi Graue) who becomes a long term companion but is brutalized and worse by the end of his relationship with Baal (though at first he seems like a competitor or a tempter). Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Baal dominates almost all the scenes (they're numbered for us right on the screen) and he is almost always in view, often maniacally walking as if he were a very serious toddler fed bottles of Mexican cane-sugar Coca-Cola. The poet as monster is the (possibly not intended) main thrust here with the companion Ekart as a kinder poetical force which seems like a sort of alter-ego amid the occasional murders and general rampage. Director Schlondorff shows the act of observation and the love of untamed nature as a formless religion though no detriment toward getting people to control themselves. There is also the question if Baal is a superior being, on account of his poetical gifts... but, "there are limits even for genius" says one disgruntled would-be fan. It's as if 18th century romanticism was channeled through a 1970s poet/bar thug. The film contains some intended (and unintended) humor. Upsetting the bourgeois seems part of the project, with Baal in the first scene welcomed into refined society which is delighted to hear his elevated wordsmanship (but they wish he'd take a bath), but after he insults and roughs them up, they turn to a (hilariously) quite critical tone about the value of his poetry.
Pride and Prejudice with Zombies - 2016 - Dir. Burr Steers - - The Bennett girls have the same problems here as in the Jane Austen original story, that is, they must maneuver through the stringent social demands of their class and the pressure to marry well. One difference with Austen's original is that they must also battle zombies which threaten to completely overrun Merre Englande. As a parody of Austen's frequently filmed 1813 story Pride and Prejudice with Zombies best excels, with whole scenes from the more famous 1995 TV miniseries directly lampooned by director and writer Steers. As a zombie apocalypse movie, it is swamped with CGI effects and the standard tics of the genre, though happily restrained by a PG-13 rating. Costume and art direction is well done, though souped-up a bit to meet, I guess, the attenuated expectations of a hybrid story line with the word Zombie in the title. The zombie-battles get a bit wearisome by the time the credits roll, but the film does contain some very fine moments of humor and parody.
Paris, Texas - 1984 - Dir. Wim Wenders - Bare desert, distant cityscape and automobiles are for the first 2/3rds of the film the primary locations for Wender's movie about two brothers (Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell) who are brought together again after one (Stanton) had disappeared into the desert for four years, leaving a young son behind that is being raised by the other sibling (Stockwell) and his wife. Aurore Clement is the surrogate mother, and is anguished when the reunited father and son leave California to search for their missing mother and ex-wife (they find her working in a peep-show in Texas). A lot of carefully placed camerawork in this film, sometimes telling us (visually) that people can be treated as consumer objects, or that their humanity is in danger of being lost amid a sea of coarse advertising and expectations based on pop culture and advertising, or just simply that technology is debilitating (when the young boy yells to his mother, she cannot hear, she has music playing through earphones blocking the sound; or the young boy and his father talk through a walkie talkie though they are near each other; or the father records onto tape a message he can't face his son to tell him in person). Maddening alienation is a theme here, with a scene of a street preacher ranting from an overpass to an expressway full of small cars speeding away below him, "don't say I didn't warn you!" he yells at their departing shapes. Paris, Texas contains the same distortions and storytelling tricks as any other motion picture so it is, in a way, part of the fog of entertainment that it seems intent upon criticizing, and by the end (the last 1/3rd of the film is packed with dialogue, a complete change from the first two thirds of mute visualizing) when Stanton goes on alone, the finale is not much different from John Ford's The Searchers. Wender's camera work is first rate throughout and is occupied at times with just looking at nicely lit shots (a lot of sunsets in this film) and that's okay, it all adds up to a unique tale expertly paced. Nastassja Kinski is the missing mother, and when she and Stanton have to carry a long, long section of film in which they chat with each other through the glass of the peep show booth, it seems like Wender's clever way of mirroring a movie audience to the performers, but without any moment when, like Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., the performer can walk out of the screen and join the ticket holders.
McQ - 1974 - Dir. John Sturges - - One of John Wayne's last films, and at least technologically speaking, a huge update from his cowboy tales, with Wayne tearing around Seattle in a black Trans Am (a couple of years before Burt Reynold's trek across America in the same car in Smoky and the Bandit) the difference here being McQ is toting a machine gun. McQ is a police detective who comes across department corruption after the murder of his longtime partner, and a hunt ensues for who and why what has happened, happened. Julie Adams appears as the ex-wife who misses the big Irish/Scot cop, Colleen Dewhurst as a junkie quasi-girlfriend who knows more than she is telling, and Eddie Albert as the cantankerous police boss who may or may not be a part of what's going on. The McQ advertising tags Wayne's character as "the cop no one can stop, not even the cops," which is true in this movie but of course not in real life, Wayne was just a couple years off from death via lung cancer. Director Sturges' has fun placing Wayne into scenes that have slightly surreal undertones and funny ironies, but the bulk of the film is a hunt for truth with carnage and surprises along the way, just as could be found in other 1970s movies like Dirty Harry, Serpico, The French Connection, etc. "The Duke" continued in this vein a year later with Brannigan.
New Criterion releases coming:
Heaven Can Wait, 1943 - Dir. Ernst Lubitsch - Criterion Web Site Page - Aug 21, 2018
Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968 - Dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea -Criterion website page - Aug 28, 2018
Smithereens, 1982 - Dir. Susan Seidelman - Criterion Web Page - Aug 21, 2018
Riffraff - 1936
Riffraff - Released Jan 3, 1936. Dir. J. Walter Ruben
Jean Harlow appeared in a number of 1930s films that modulated between comedy and melodrama with finesse, but Riffraff isn't one of them. Not that Harlow appears to be to blame here, she attacks her scenes with the same energy found in thousands of other feet of celluloid with other directors, but in Riffraff it looks like she's pointlessly pedaling harder on a downhill grade.
Spencer Tracy (as "Dutch" Muller) overdoes it as a tuna fisherman-cum-labor leader, but it's hard to blame him for throwing off the balance of the film, either, as the whole cast seems to be overdoing it. Joseph Calleia and George Givot take on their roles as a factory owner and his attorney with so much caricature involved that it looks like they're competing with Chico Marx.
The question that plagued me while watching this film was how can Riffraff play at screwball comedy (i.e., Givot and Calleia) but still be a melodrama chock full of soap opera? The dilemma of Dutch's ego and the trouble it brings everyone else (eventually getting Harlow in prison) is the main plot action here, but the film portrays the union fishery workers as a lunk-headed mob, and Dutch as only slightly smarter, the factory owner (Calleia) as only a bit smarter than him, and Hattie clearly brainier than the whole lot (as are many of the other female characters). But Hattie's only interested in true love and so sticks to her man Dutch despite his overweening pride, knee-jerk jealousy and eventual desertion. Their on-and-off again love and marriage is supposed to be a drama of a cannery factory girl (Harlow) and the big-headed would-be "Trotskyite" union leader Dutch, and how they overcome adversity and their own inner-demons to finally triumph, and it is true that this tone eventually takes over the third act of the movie and evens out the histrionics, despite the unbelievability of the overwrought story (courtesy of a staff of writers: Frances Marion, H.W. Hanemann, Anita Loos, George S. Kaufman, John Lee Mahin, and Carey Wilson).
But usually in a classic era Hollywood film of this type, despite all the character flaws on display, we still end up sympathizing and liking the main characters as they go through their trial-by-ordeal, but in Dutch's over-the-top self-love he gets to be rather unbearable as either a comedic/dramatic lead or as a failed husband putting Hattie through the ringer.
On the other hand, Harlow certainly looks gorgeous in Riffraff while enduring the trauma. Despite being a lowly cannery girl, she wakes up in bed with perfect 1930s eye lashes, hair and makeup, and manages to wear silken outfits (a frequent wardrobe for Harlow in many other movies where she plays characters rather more well-off). This being black-and-white, we can barely tell Harlow is her true brown-headed self, instead of the Platinum Blonde of dozens of other films. All the same, Harlow's energy and looks can't can't carry the movie, and Tracy's mix-matched effort of comedy and drama doesn't gel either, and though it's only 94 minutes long, it feels more like 194 minutes of not-quite-sure-what-kind-of-movie-we-are-making.
By the end, Hattie finally finds happiness and will return home (after prison!) to a stable marriage and husband, because inexplicably Dutch has finally reduced his tumor-like egomania to a more modest size. In some ways, the film Riffraff resembles Dutch, both start off as out-of-control and bizarre, but end up humble, humdrum and puzzling.
The Eagle Has Landed
The Eagle Has Landed - released April 2, 1977 (NYC). Directed by John Sturges
The Eagle has Landed has the unusual gambit of trying to get us to like and admire one of the main characters, a German paratrooper (Michael Caine) and to witness the basic humanity and even heroic action of him and his troupe of daring cammandos. Oberst Kurt Steiner (Caine) has the difficult task of kidnapping Winston Churchill, or, if absolutely necessary, assassinating the UK leader, but it takes a little while for the military gears for this adventure to really start turning. The first half of the movie is more of a talk fest as all the pieces for perpetuating the scheme are moved to the coast of Norfolk in the United Kingdom where Churchill is supposed to be arriving for a short holiday. Besides Caine's Germans (who will arrive dressed in disguise), the story also revolves around the activities of a German agent among the villagers (Jean Marsh), an Irish IRA agent (Donald Sutherland) and young love (with Jenny Agutter), along with an American unit led by a humorously incompetent leader named Colonel Pitts (Larry Hagman).
Sturges' direction in the latter part of the movie is an expertly told running battle between the small German unit and the American soldiers, but the first half is partially melodrama with the funny comedy of Larry Hagman's arrogant Col. Pitts and his mad desire to get into combat (which turns out to not be a very good idea for him nor his soldiers) bridging the two halves of the story.
Michael Caine's honorable German paratrooper who is commanded by Nazis who he appears to loath (and who we are supposed to loath right along with him) is another large part of the tale, and we are shown Caine's character heroically trying to save a Jewess prisoner near the beginning of the film, an action that gets him into trouble and if it were not for his particular skills being called upon to parachute into England, he might have been executed right then.
With his Nazi superiors watching him and a later problem of suddenly having a group of English hostages on his hands and no way out, the real tension of the movie appears to be whether Caine's Oberst Steiner will remain the humane soldier we saw at the beginning or will he go full-on Nazi killer. How Sturges and writer Tom Mankiewicz (from the Jack Higgins novel) wrap it all up is as serviceable a conclusion as can be expected from such an odd tale of World War II heroics with the Germans being a nominal group of "good guys" despite the understood necessity that they fail in their mission (although, in a way, they succeed).
The Blu Ray from Shout Factory is sharp with good color and sound.
Stranded - 1935
Stranded - Released June 29, 1935. Directed by Frank Borzage
Kay Francis (as Lynn Palmer) is tough, and George Brent (as Mack Hale) is tough, too, in this drama set in San Francisco. Both of their positions require it: she runs the Travelers' Aid desk at a train terminal in San Francisco where people in distress regularly show up, and he is the foreman on a bridge construction job on the Bay where racketeers, crooked union officials, and drunkenness in the crews threatens lives and the building deadline he is struggling to achieve.
Coming new releases from Criterion:
AMAZON Bluray: 6 Disc Set: Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood : Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil Is a Woman - The Criterion Collection - July 3, 2018
Archive Page 500